Neath Port Talbot Council is understood to have become the first local authority in Wales to use a robot to process back office administration.
The council has been trialling the new technology, known as Robotics Process Automate (RPA), to process Disclosure and Barring Service ( DBS) checks and update employee information.
At a personnel committee meeting on Monday, September 9, head of human resources Sheenagh Rees told councillors the robot had helped clear a backlog of data inputting within a matter of weeks.
She said: “Since 2013 there has been a 50% reduction of administration staff in HR but we have only had increasing demand for our services.
“The reason we were interested in using RPA was because it could help us deal with a high volume of work we weren’t able to do.
“Embracing new ways of working, and particularly technology, that can help us improve efficiency and effectiveness of our workforce really seems like a no-brainer for us.
“This has been a brilliant piece of technology to introduce into the team, we would really recommend it to other sectors.
“It’s a way of still being able to provide services but with less people providing them.”
The human resources (HR) team undertook a pilot programme with the software, being the first council to work with outsourcing services provider Arvato.
Its success means the technology is now due to be rolled out across the council to other departments.
Officers said the use of the robot had not led to any job losses because they had already taken place in the HR team.
They said it had reduced the amount of hours officers needed to spend on routine admin work and had meant one member of staff could be moved onto higher value work.
In the last six years, the number of administration staff in HR has gone from 16 to eight.
The annual cost for the robot is £10,000 with officers pointing that the more undertaken by the robot, the more cost effective it is.
Officers said the robot could process things much quicker than humans because there were no interruptions and because that was all it did.
They said it was 100% accurate and could work 24/7, 365 days a year.
At Monday’s meeting principal HR manager Diane Hopkins told councillors “The robot is only a piece of software – if you were expecting to come to HR and see R2-D2 sitting there, unfortunately that’s not going to be the case.
“We don’t want to have lots of visitors coming to HR and being disappointed.”
She added: “It recognises anything that needs to be dealt with and flags that with us.
“For example, if a criminal record does come back on a DBS check we transfer it to more of a human touch – all of our processes do require a human intervention.
“It isn’t suitable for every process in back office but it’s suitable for those that involve high-volume processing and where there’s duplication of work.”
Officers said while the council had paid Arvato a total of £27,000 to develop three processes for the HR team, one member of the HR team was now trained in Blue Prism technology as were two ICT staff, meaning they could develop new robotic processes themselves.
Some councillors raised fears that the new technology could lead to job losses in the future.
However cabinet member for education, skills and culture Peter Rees said it was necessary because of ongoing financial constraints.
He said: “It’s a no-brainer, I’ve heard in this council chamber many times that the people left behind [after job cuts] have got to pick up the work.
“if this technology relieves those pressures and makes it easier for people to deliver the services that we want for our people out there then I think we have to embrace it.”
Cabinet member for finance Carol Clement-Williams said there had always been concerns that computers would take over jobs since the start of the looms.
She said: “We have still got jobs, just different ones.
“It’s always something we worry about – that robots will take over the world.
“I do think we need to embrace this technology – it’s always been this council’s policy to try and avoid compulsory redundancies at all costs.”
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