How Barnsley Council is transforming local social care with AI

Much like local authorities up and down the country, Barnsley Council faces a pressing challenge – how to serve its residents with increasing demand for services with fewer resources. The situation is perhaps most testing in children’s services and social care, key areas of council focus. Barnsley is one of the first councils to roll out Copilot for Microsoft 365, the generative AI assistant, at scale. Copilot has integrated seamlessly into many of the programmes and apps the council workers already use every day, including PowerPoint and Teams.

Staff across finance, HR, legal and other divisions are using it to streamline their workloads, and the technology is proving particularly useful in social care.

How technology is transforming social care in Barnsley

In Barnsley, social care professionals can now use Copilot to free up time for the human interactions at the core of their work.

“It’s been really useful for writing up calls, tidying up notes or doing minutes after a meeting and making all that a lot quicker,” says ‘Sam’, a Barnsley social worker. Due to the sensitive nature of his job, he has chosen not to publish his real name.

While Sam loves working with children, like all social workers he struggles with the admin weight of the job. “It’s really nice having Copilot as a sort of personal secretary,” he says. “It means I’m not having to concentrate quite as much on scribbling things down, so it frees up brain space to really focus – if I’m chairing a meeting, for example.”

The AI tool can quickly reorganise visit notes into accurate records, divided into categories. This saves social workers hours of analysis, so they can prioritise any urgent interventions. It can also quickly summarise large files when social workers take on a new case, presenting key information and major risk factors.

Nevertheless, it is only there to augment the skills of the person using it. Sam, like all social workers, will always conduct a review. “Given the importance of what we do, I do need to keep an oversight on it,” says Sam. “But it makes a really useful start on things.”

Barnsley is also planning to use Copilot to make social care training materials, as well as for filtering through large data sets to ensure records are accurate and up to date.

Freedom to fly (and fall) with new technology

Copilot harnesses cutting-edge generative AI but remains simple to use, and Sam has found it intuitive.

“It’s nicely integrated within all the Microsoft products we already use,” he says. “You can just click on something and it will give you the option to summarise the text, generate minutes or whatever it might be.”

Nevertheless, Copilot gives the most useful results when it is focused through the right kinds of prompts and parameters, and it can take time to figure this process out. Sam, like his colleagues, is therefore taking time to experiment – with the full support of the council.

“I’ve told people it’s ok to try things out and make mistakes,” says Wendy Popplewell, Executive Director for Core Services at Barnsley Council. “They should treat it like any other approved tool. If something goes wrong, it’s ok, as long as they’re mindful of our policies and use the system appropriately.”

Wendy Popplewell

The council is also taking great care to support and upskill its staff during the trial. 180 staff are now “flight crew”, Copilot champions who can help their colleagues make use of the technology. There are also demos, workshops and weekly standups hosted by Wendy, plus training sessions and walkthroughs delivered by implementation partner CPS.

At least half the council workforce has now adopted the new technology, while word of mouth is playing an important role in boosting uptake. “Quite often I hear people showing other people what Copilot can do,” says Sam. “Likewise, it’s been nice showing people what it can do and seeing them join the dots.”

Future ambitions for Barnsley Council

Barnsley Council’s relationship with Microsoft will also be integral to its AI plans as it works towards Barnsley 2030, an ambitious shared strategy for the borough to fulfil its potential.

“We talk about the importance of being brave in Barnsley,” says Wendy. “We’re using the latest technology to make this a place where you can come and do the job you always wanted to do.”

To learn more about AI and Copilot for Microsoft 365, please visit microsoft.com/ai.