England & Wales HR, workforce and communications, Technology

Viewpoint: Our year with the robot

Image courtesy LB Waltham Forest

Cllr Liaquat Ali MBE from LGiU member Waltham Forest Council reviews the difference that a specially designed chatbot has made to how the council responds to residents’ neighbourhood concerns.

In March 2018, residents of Waltham Forest were introduced to their newest public servant: a hard-working, dedicated character called Walt. So far, nothing out of the ordinary – but Walt is different! Walt is a robot on a mission to help people quickly, easily and conveniently report neighbourhood issues such as fly-posting, fly-tipping, or dog fouling directly to clean-up crews for swift action.

Viewpoint: Our year with the robot
Cllr Liaquat Ali

Walt was initially introduced via Facebook messenger before really finding its home on Twitter. Users can submit reports about incidents anywhere in the borough using their smartphones or tablets. They can also submit pictures, to help the cleaning crew quickly find and clear the problem, and can even request to receive a notification when their report has been resolved. It’s a great example of how we as a council can use technology to benefit our residents to make their lives easier and help them to keep their neighbourhoods clean, green, and safe.

The chatbot was developed and tested by the council’s in-house digital team in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and local residents, to be sure it worked for them in the way we wanted. And the numbers show that Walt is certainly doing its fair share – as the volume of reports received via the chatbot increases, the number of calls to our contact centre decrease.

Over 20 per cent of the reports we have received since October 2018 have come through the chatbot. In February 2019, a new record of 25.8 per cent was achieved by Walt. With another 60 per cent of reports coming via self-service online forms, we have reduced the number made by phone to just 18 per cent of the total. And that figure is falling month-by-month – in October 2018 nearly a quarter of reports were made by phone. In February that figure was 14.9 per cent.

That means fewer residents spending time in call queues to our contact centre, freeing up the customer service staff to deal with more serious or unusual incidents. When residents can quickly report issues, it saves them time and hassle. Having an ability to check on the progress of the reports they have made helps people feel a sense of ownership and, we hope, builds pride in the neighbourhood and a real sense of belonging.

Viewpoint: Our year with the robot
Walt allows the council to respond quickly to residents’ concerns.

Walt’s good work has gained plaudits from the community. It’s not unusual to visit a Facebook page for residents and see people recommending other users to Tell Walt about any problems in their neighbourhood. A one resident said, “The council’s chatbot works really well for this – it takes you through a series of questions and it’s easy to add pictures!” The speed in which issues are cleared has also impressed users: “Credit where it’s due. Waltham Forest Council just cleaned up dog mess in front of my flat within 30 minutes of me reporting it. Thanks for a great job.”

So where next for the intrepid chatbot? While we are delighted to celebrate Walt’s first birthday, we know that this is just the start. What would our residents find useful as we move forward? How can we make Walt even more helpful for those who live, work, or study in Waltham Forest?

As we look toward a bright future with Walt, we will take on board the feedback of residents and users of the chatbot to investigate in more depth how we can make reporting neighbourhood issues even easier and more convenient. Clean, tidy neighbourhoods where residents feel safe and happy help us build resilient, connected communities where all can make the very most their life chances. Here’s to you, Walt!

Cllr Liaquat Ali MBE is the Cabinet Member for Commercial Operations and Transformation at Waltham Forest Council