There's a widespread discussion going on about how robots, machines and computers are replacing humans in the workplace. I watched the recent Panorama about how varying levels of artificial intelligence were are taking over professional white collar jobs with a certain amount of scepticism. Traditionally it has been blue collar manual jobs which have been under threat from technological advances. However, the recent chatter has been about how technology has turned its attention to roles such as customer service and clerking. As I read more, I realised this was right. Think about how you can now book, check in and (very nearly) board a flight without any human interaction at all. A real person still makes the final check on your passport and ticket at the gate - but it's surely only a matter of time...
Little Britain's hilarious "computer says no" sketch was based on a customer's experience with their bank - but according to the 2015 Which customer service survey a lot banks have got their act together (unsurprisingly, First Direct came top of the list). It's the energy companies that still seem incapable of allowing a human being to use their common sense and judgement to help solve a customer's problem. (FYI Npower was last, Scottish power second last, Ryan Air was third last - see comment above about airline travel).
It would have been fascinating to have seen some public services, such as hospitals or the police, in Which's list. Thankfully it seems that jobs which require elements of personal care are safe (for now) from the march of the robots. A lot of public service roles fall squarely in the "personal care" category, so they're safe, right?
Not quite...As budgets shrink public services are constantly trying to be more efficient which means the first thoughts that often comes to mind is "how can we standardise?" or "how can we automate?". For thousands of people who access public services, their problems are complex and require a human response. At best, a standardised or automated response papers over the cracks. At worst, it is completely ineffective and makes the problem worse.
Little Britain's bank clerk took real satisfaction at disappointing the customer - but for the vast majority of public service staff a system that says "no" is every bit as frustrating to them as it is to the customer (and yes I am deliberately using the term "customer"). A lot of social workers, nurses and police officers feel that they are being forced to behave like robots (an automaton cog in a much bigger machine) as bureaucracy, management structures and a box ticking culture suppress the very human instincts that these roles need. These staff need freedom to use their compassion, their professional judgement and their humanity - but this can be really difficult within the confines of a hospital or a council where bureaucracy, management layers and boxes to tick have amounted over the years (with more being heaped on in the name of efficiency!).
Some public services have managed to save themselves from the system. Organisations like Social AdVentures in Salford (delivering public health services), PossAbilities in Rochdale (social care) and Explore in York (Libraries) have "spun out" of the public sector and now operate independently as a social enterprise. Their services are still paid for by the tax payer under a contract - but they have a lot more freedom and have taken the opportunity to sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy.
They trust the professional judgement of their staff.
Here's an example of how this works in practice - Social AdVentures let any member of staff make spending decisions of up to £250. Surely this will bankrupt the service I hear you say. Surely every member of staff will turn up with a new iPad. Nonsense! They've used this spending power to provide the support their customers need quicker. Showing staff that they are trusted gives them the confidence to use their professional judgement and humanity. This leads to more satisfied customers, financial savings as longer term problems are avoided and much less stress for staff. It's all transparent, so their colleagues can see what the money is being spent on - so no iPads I'm afraid.
There is no doubt public services face serious financial challenges but the answer is not more standardisation and automation leading to more "computer says no" situations - the answer is allowing front line staff to be more human.