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The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is reportedly dealing with a case backlog of 945,000 due to its reliance on traditional sorting methods, which ground to halt when staff were absent due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The DVLA could take a leaf from the book of local government organisations, which have successfully dealt with Covid-19-related backlogs using technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA).

The DVLA is facing a hefty backlog following staff absences during Covid-19. (Photo by Oleksandr Siedov/iStock)

An investigation by The Times found the backlog at the DVLA resulted from staff being on leave due to COVID-19 regulations. Of the organisation’s 6,200 staff, 3,400 took special leave, it says.

This had a big impact on the DVLA’s largely manual processes. The organisation receives a reported 60,000 pieces of post a day, but civil servants that have been on-site are not able to process documents quickly enough. What’s more, due to offices not being “Covid-19-secure” there were 58 days of industrial action over nearly six months, resulting in 400,000 cases being added to the agency’s backlog. In September 2021, this backlog peaked at 1.6million cases.

A DVLA spokesman told The Times the agency has recruited more staff and opened new sites, and hopes to have caught up with the application backlog by June. The situation faced by the DVLA is representative of problems caused across the public sector by the pandemic, and for which technology such as RPA has often proved a useful solution.

Public services in ‘disarray’ following pandemic

According to “Performance Tracker 2021: Assessing the cost of COVID in public services”, the pandemic has put a strain on many public services.

In July 2021, there were 5.6 million people in the UK waiting for elective operations, which is longer than at any point since 2007. By the end of May 2021, there were 58,000 criminal court cases awaiting a hearing; 40% of cases had been waiting for more than six months by the end of March 2021, compared to 25% at the end of December 2019.

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Elsewhere, there had been 252,000 referrals to children’s social care between April 2020 and July 2021, which is 11% fewer than the average of the same weeks between 2017 and 2020. This could indicate that local authorities have been unable to identify, assess and support children as quickly as they would normally.

Graham Atkins, IfG associate director and the report’s lead author said: “The pandemic threw the government’s plans for public services into disarray and none of the services we examine have been able to operate as they did before. There are now quantifiable backlogs in hospitals, GPs, criminal courts, schools and children’s social care.

“The pandemic also prompted rapid change in the way many services were delivered and highlighted the gulf between the range and quality of data available in different services,” he added.

RPA in the public sector is helping with backlogs

In local government departments, backlogs were a big issue throughout the pandemic. Speaking at a techUK event on Thursday, Emeran Saigol, operational director of digital, customer experience and community safety, London Borough of Redbridge, said that within its “private sector licensing area”, the local government had 4,000 applications to process.

“[We had to] think quite hard about ‘how do we deal with these backlogs?’,” he said. “Is it a case that we employ more people? Well we can’t, so how do we use technology? How do we use RPA, in particular, to help us through that process?”

Using RPA meant that the team at the public sector organisation could deal with backlogs in under two weeks, rather than eight months, Saigol said. He also referenced the use of an artificial intelligence planning validation tool, which was cutting processing times down from five weeks to 24 hours.

Saigol’s team is focusing on the future, taking the lessons learned from the pandemic and using them to help create services on a council-wide digital platform as well as creating new web estate.

Liverpool City Council also used RPA to improve its benefits services. Speaking at the event, Alison Hughes, assistant director of ICT, digital and customer at the council, said that her department had done “lots of work” with its benefit service and other “challenging” areas during the pandemic.

“Things like our grant allocation, our [revenues] and benefits team, really important stuff that we’ve done around building on some of the work we already had and embedding that in freeing up our resources,” she said. “We’ve seen some really good examples of where it’s helped us process things really quickly.”

Hughes says that more is still to come as there’s “much more we can do”, especially in terms of automating citizen experience and elements of service delivery.

Read more: Could intelligent automation solve the NHS’s bureaucracy burden?

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