access to appropriate nutrition. Clearly, the importance of children having access to nutritious meals has never been more crucial. With mass redundancies in full force, families

have struggled under the financial burden, which has resulted in a sizeable increase in the number of people relying on Universal Credit. In tandem, there has been a subsequent increase in applications for Free School Meals as another vital support. Ensuring these applications are processed as swiftly as possible is a critical requirement of Local Authorities. However, as applications are often handled by small teams utilising legacy IT systems, how can they cope with such unprecedented demand, recognising the sensitive nature of the issue and the distress of families that find themselves in a difficult financial situation? At Swindon Borough Council, we experienced

this crisis first-hand. With more families entering the benefit system, in March 2020 we saw applications for Free School Meals across the region rise more than 2,000%, compared to 2019 figures. The figures remain consistently high. Understanding the financial difficulties that

families in our jurisdiction were facing, our team developed a strategy utilising a digital solution to eradicate manual processes where appropriate. This allowed for previously unattainable speeds at which our systems could process the requests - achieving an astounding 98% efficiency increase. Our innovative approach enabled a team of just four people to successfully manage the scale of the issue and reduce the turnaround time for parents and carers by 66%, helping to provide reassurance as well ensuring children were provided with vital nutrition. We have been absolutely delighted with the

success of this project and the positive impact it continues to make in such a socially valuable area. The past 12 months have been incredibly difficult for many families and through embracing new technology we have been able to make a genuine difference to real lives and outcomes. Our team utilised Robotic Process Automation

(RPA) technology to create instantaneous communication between the council and the Department for Education. Synchronisation in data between systems has achieved multiple benefits, including providing parents and carers with confirmation of eligibility at speed, reducing the need to access sensitive information. Likewise, there is no longer a requirement to recreate

information on multiple systems, avoiding another opportunity for error. We joined forces with NDL, a UK SME that

specialises in transformational technology with social purpose, to build the seamless, automated digital process. It enables a parent or carer to complete an online form that, once submitted, is automatically checked against the data held in relevant systems. On occasions where data needs to be resubmitted later, for example when an application for Universal Credits is being processed by the Department for Work and Pensions, the system automatically schedules a re- check. Initially a Proof of Concept, the project was

successfully delivered in just two months by a very small team and at the height of a global pandemic. We believe that success was achieved through true partnership and collaboration between Swindon Borough Council and NDL. We’re incredibly proud of what we have been able to achieve so far on behalf of residents in our region, instilling new ways of thinking and pushing forward with innovation to deliver the best service possible. Following the overwhelming success of this

project, Swindon Borough Council is working with NDL to test and develop technologies in more departments, to drive forward positive

change. As a result of the Free School Meals project’s success as a Proof of Concept, we have already created a new RPA system for the Children’s Social Care team, which integrates children social care processes between CareDirector and CapitaOne. The team were able to build on existing investment and learning to achieve time and cost efficiencies. When embarking on a new technology project

like this one, we would recommend bringing stakeholders and users into the project early, which helps everybody to work at pace with quality results. Likewise ensure that you have your processes and business rules understood and documented in detail. In such pressing circumstances, it is important to be able to work at speed to be able to deploy quality data. However, understandably there will be exceptions in all data records that RPA technology cannot process. My advice is to work with the end users to plan your exception management early. Being proactive in our approach and using

innovative technology allowed us to meet the pressures associated with the pandemic, and in turn ensure that local children could access much- needed support. A digital-first approach enabled us to adapt quickly in a crisis and ensure applications were handled with precision and at speed, making a meaningful difference to the lives of families that would otherwise have faced potentially significant delays accessing support in a time of need. We are aware that the 150 other Local Authorities across the country have faced similar crises during the pandemic, and we hope that they will find our learnings at Swindon useful as they consider their strategies moving forward. With the government-commissioned

recommendations suggesting that up to 1.5 million more children in England should get access to free school meals, the importance in investing in robust, efficient and agile technology is greater than ever. Implementing it before a crisis hits means that when the community needs your support, it is already ready and waiting.

uTo find out more about the work Swindon Borough Council undertook, please email

38 June 2021

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