Local authorities in Sweden are using process automation through software to help social workers make decisions on benefits for claimants.
A programme being run at more than 20 local authorities by PwC and the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL) is introducing software robots to carry out repetitive tasks previously done manually, such as document and data checks.
Social workers have to make life-changing decisions on whether poor people have the right to financial aid, which is used for rent and food. This requires staff at a local authority’s social bureau to go through historical data manually, including things like claimants’ bank statements and documents related to other public services.
Social workers also calculate the exact sum available to each individual based on specific calculation rules, and mistakes can have serious repercussions if people are denied the financial aid they need.
The SKL/PwC programme focused initially on creating the right digital environment for software robots. The robots can then be brought in to handle repetitive tasks, such as fact checking and calculations. Finding out if someone is entitled to benefits requires data, but the rules are so simple that the process is perfectly suited to automation.
Leif Klingensjö heads the division at SKL that, among other things, handles income support issues, and is leading this automation project for the organisation. “When the application process becomes automated, it gives staff time to help citizens so find a paid job.”
For many people, applying for financial support is a last resort and it is meant to be a temporary solution.
The automation software checks whether a claimant is receiving income from another authority, and calculates how much money they are entitled to. All their income for a given time period must be included in the calculation, as well as all invoices for rent and other outgoings.
“Computer automation in this case will, besides freeing up time, lead to better law abidance, security, and increased privacy for the individual,” said Klingensjö. “There is a lot of interest in this from the local other authorities.”
Ola Johnsson, adviser and computer automation expert at PwC in Malmö, said that in his last job, he launched the first digital application form used at a local authority in Trelleborg. Trelleborg and Malmö are in Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost province.
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The project was to automate repetitive work to free up time for social workers, said Johnsson, but the social workers were angry and nearly threw the proposal out. “They did not take the idea of passing tasks to robots lightly and wanted to protect themselves and the job they do,” he said.
But then the social workers began to understand the idea and became interested. In September 2015, Trelleborg introduced a digital application form as an e-service for the needy. After only three months, up to 60% of applications were being made to the social bureau digitally – a better result than had been expected.
Many of the people involved in the project had feared it would be difficult for needy people to use it, not least because of a general lack of digital experience and the need for laptops or smartphones in that group.
Johnsson then moved to PwC, where he is now part of a team working with many local authorities across Sweden that want to introduce the same system or something similar.
And the idea is gaining traction, said Johnsson. A programme involving 12 local authorities started in March and a further 13 are now starting on the system.
PwC uses Blue Prism’s robotic process automation (RPA) platform to build the required system for each local authority.
Johnsson said the Nordics public sector is more willing to adopt RPA than the industry in general, but implementations can take a long time.
“There will be a shift in mindset in the next two to five years,” he said. “When adding more AI capabilities and even chatbots, we will have an entirely new interface to use between citizens and local authorities.”
UK RPA company Blue Prism recently hired a CEO to set up its new Nordic office in Stockholm as it prepares to offer a more personal service to customers in the region. The Nordics are Blue Prism’s third-biggest market after the US and the UK.