INNOVATION

Winning plan to leverage AI's power

Lewis Sheldrake’s AI Labs project offering a framework to bring the power of artificial intelligence into all aspects of council service delivery won him the Local Government Challenge 2023. Heather Jameson reports.

Lewis Sheldrake, winner of the Local Government Challenge 2023, wishes work could sometimes be a bit more like the challenge.

Working flat out to brainstorm a solution, all hands on deck for 36 hours until it is cracked. Although he points out, it would be better if you could have a day off to recover afterwards. 


 

For the uninitiated, it is the Local Government Association's (LGA) very own version of The Apprentice. Ten rising star officers take on five conundrums at different authorities across the country. 

With just two days to come up with answers for the host authority, the challenge is a huge learning curve for the contestants – and it offers a free consultancy service for its hosts. 

The challenge culminates at the LGA conference, where four finalists compete for the final prize – the £10,000 Bruce-Lockhart scholarship – with their own plans to improve the sector. 

The 2023 challenge was a little different. It started in 2019 before it was completely derailed by Covid just two challenges in. 
Lewis' winning proposal – an artificial intelligence (AI) hub for the whole of local government – offers the innovation and ambition the challenge sets out to uncover. But more of that later. 

Local government was not Lewis' first career. He left school at 16 to join the military, spending five and a half years with the parachute regiment, including a tour of Afghanistan in 2008. There are, he says, a lot of misconceptions around the role of the forces in a post like that. 

‘A huge part of it was the humanitarian effort,' he explains. ‘There are many parallels to be drawn [with local government], engaging with local communities.' In local government terms it would be culture change, winning hearts and minds or co-production, he suggests. 

When he left, he took on a role at Barking & Dagenham LBC in the CCTV control room, 13 years ago. When the London riots came to the borough, his military mindset kicked in. 

‘It was about prioritisation of resources, recognising where the greatest risk and vulnerability sat and co-ordinating what was happening that was a tangible threat to life or property.' 

He moved around community safety, cohesion and anti-social behaviour roles, liaising with the police, and started to see a common theme of mental health issues driving problems. He led an award-winning project training 1,000 frontline staff in mental health first aid at a time before it was commonplace. 

That in turn took him into social care commissioning, with mental health the ‘common denominator'. He has taken the lead on digital innovation, using technology and predictive analytics and trying to look at resident issues in a more holistic way. 

While he has moved around Barking & Dagenham, it is the only authority Lewis has worked for – so the LG Challenge offered an opportunity to see how things are done differently at other councils. 

Technology was, according to fellow contestants, Lewis' superpower, so it is hardly surprising it took centre stage for his final project, AI Labs. 
‘The objective is to provide a framework whereby local authorities can leverage the power of artificial intelligence into all aspects of local government service delivery,' he explains. ‘There is not a single part of local government function that couldn't be enhanced by AI.'

But he is quick to point out that does not mean getting rid of staff. ‘A vote for AI is a vote for more face time for social workers with their vulnerable clients, because AI is picking up the heavy lifting of the administration burden.'

What AI cannot do, he says, is the emotional intelligence and human interaction so important to frontline delivery. 

‘The idea is to create a safe, ethical foundation upon which the use of AI can be developed, some code of practice… the next half of that was around supporting the workforce to be trained to understand what is AI, how does it potentially apply to local government.'

Staff, he suggests, are best placed to understand what they need AI to help with. 

AI Labs is, in effect, a collaborative tool to bring together staff, private sector and stakeholders to develop AI solutions. ‘Rather than each council embarking on this individually,' he says, ‘the AI Labs proposal introduces a co-funding platform whereby councils can share risk and cost to deliver best value for both the councils and the taxpayer.'

He uses the example of a customer services chatbot. Rather than each council developing their own they could use their collective buying power, sharing the risks and the costs and tailoring the end product to local services. 

Whatever the outcomes of his project, there is one certainty which he highlighted to visitors on his stand at the LGA conference: not using AI in local government is not an option. 

With the latest round of the LG Challenge taking its final applications now, he is full of praise for the programme. ‘It's very intense. You are having to collate and process a hell of a lot of information. You're having to be quite ruthless on what ideas are there, in scope and fit the brief, and which don't.' 

He believes the new ideas coming into local government will come from a younger cohort of officers, more tech savvy and questioning how things are done and what can be different. But it will need a shift away from top-down control and an open-minded approach to new thinking. 
Much like the approach of the LG Challenge. 

To find out more about the LG Challenge, or to apply go here

X – LGChallenge
 

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