How Barnsley Council is delivering better lives for workers with Microsoft Copilot

A photo taken of Barnsley Council Town Hall, taken from the ground looking up at the building. Decorative: the photo was taken at dusk.
(Image credit: Barnsley Council)

As AI enters the workplace to an increasing extent, public sector organizations are looking at how the technology could help their workers do more with less and cut down on hours wasted on toil.

Barnsley Council has turned to Microsoft’s AI assistant Copilot for Microsoft 365 to achieve this, empowering its entire IT-enabled workforce to use the generative AI assistant throughout their workday on tasks such as drafting text or summarizing meetings.

“We're asking people ‘what can you do better?’,” says Wendy Popplewell, executive director, Core Services at Barnsley Council, in discussion with ITPro.

“Look at the job you do, figure out whether there are efficiencies. But in order to have that thinking space, you've got to give them time for that thinking space. And this is what this is doing. It's giving them time to have that thinking space.”

A headshot of Wendy Popplewell, executive director of core services at Barnsley Council.
Wendy Popplewell

Wendy Popplewell is the executive director of the Core Services directorate at Barnsley Council, a role she has held since April 2023. Prior to this, Popplewell was head of delivery at NHS England and previously worked as deputy private secretary to the secretary of state for work and pensions for three years.

Unlocking value with AI

Barnsley Council was part of the initial trial for Copilot, which comprised a few hundred licenses. In December 2023, it entered into a six-month Copilot trial period, with an aim to establish how it might unlock value for its many workers. 

The tool is primarily being used for automatic meeting minutes or inbox summarization, which alleviates what Popplewell calls the “inbox dread” of returning from holiday and trying to catch up on missed correspondence. Barnsley IT teams have also used Copilot for bulk reset user passwords in a matter of minutes.

Popplewell says that return on investment is a condition of success for the trial, again pointing to tight public sector budgets.

“Given the position that local government is in with finance, quite frankly, we have to try anything,” Popplewell tells ITPro.

“And it's not just anything about the money, it's also about what makes our colleagues' lives easier. So we are delivering all the services we did 12 to 13 years ago but with about half the resources. Everybody is quite tired, they’re trying to do their day job the best they can – and they do an amazing job – but basically anything that helps them I am absolutely up for.”

Breaking through AI concerns with communication

When Copilot was first rolled out, Popplewell and her team made a ‘center of excellence’ channel in Teams so that everybody with a Copilot license could exchange AI prompts, experiences, and use cases. 

“Immediately, I had a raft of people asking to be removed because they didn't have time. 

“I went back and said to them, ‘we're not going to remove you from the group, you can mute it’. I get that everybody's busy but I'm not going to remove you from the group because I do want you to use this and I think people will naturally be a bit worried about this. 

“It's one of the challenges, isn't it? People will be worried and they'll think ‘this is just another thing. It's another thing you're asking of me and I'm already busy’.”


Changing people’s minds has been a gradual, hands-on process. Anyone at Barnsley Council with a work laptop now has access to Copilot, with Popplewell saying she’s keen for people to get stuck into the tool to figure out how it can best improve their working day.

“You can't break it,” Popplewell says.

“Don’t be wilfully reckless with it, but if you get it wrong, that's all right. And I think there's a real cultural thing around ‘If you get this wrong, don't worry about it’.”

Assisting in this in-house upskilling is the ‘flight crew’, a group of 180 Copilot-savvy volunteers from across all departments at the council that help co-workers use the AI assistant. The enthusiasm of volunteers was unexpected: Popplewell says she’d initially worried that they would struggle to pull in 20 people for the flight crew.

Roughly half of the workers at Barnsley Council actively use Copilot for their work, but this number is increasing all the time. In letting people come to the technology in their own time, encouraged by peers, Popplewell indicates that Barnsley Council can overcome a major sectoral hurdle.

“We want people to be innovative and I think the problem is, the public sector by its nature is more risk averse because you are dealing with people's lives, you are sometimes dealing with the most vulnerable in society,” Popplewell says.

“It's an enormous responsibility so that risk aversion, I think, is quite natural.”

Leaning on partners to overcome adoption challenges

Popplewell also hosts team standups weekly, which champion how Copilot is being used successfully. An undercurrent throughout the adoption process has been the work of CPS, Barnsley Council’s implementation partner. Popplewell tells ITPro that its help has been fundamental to getting Copilot off the ground, given the time and workforce constraints at the council.

“We don't have access to big teams to be able to stand up that resource,” she says, adding that “having CPS in as a partner just gave us that extra resource”.

CPS’ in-person approach has been a particularly helpful aspect of the implementation process, with ‘floor walking’ experts appearing on-site to help people get to grips with the technology.

“I think it’s really important to have people on the ground, so you can do as many online training courses as you want, but having somebody wandering around an office and somebody saying, ‘Oh can you just come and give me a hand with this? Can you just come and look at this? Is this right? Is this what I do?’ That's really powerful.”

As part of its initial process, CPS led sessions with Barnsley Council to establish the exact problems it aimed to solve using AI. The firm continues to provide skills workshops to Barnsley Council as part of its weekly standup format.

A backbone for important work

More than halfway through its AI digital transformation process, having set out to see if Copilot could deliver tangible benefits to its workers, Popplewell makes it clear that Barnsley Council workers are seeing real improvement in their day-to-day operations.

“There was a lovely quote from a social worker the other day, who was talking about summarizing meeting minutes. She said, ‘You know, that saved me 3 hours’, and somebody said, ‘Oh, that's great you get more time to spend with families’. And she said, ‘I get more time spent with my family’. And I thought yeah, of course that's absolutely right.”

As council workers automate more of their menial tasks using AI, Popplewell says they’ll have more time to focus on the activities that make the most difference to the local community.

“They're really tough jobs, it's so important that we give in Barnsley and across the country, a really high-quality service,” she says.

“We are protecting vulnerable children, protecting vulnerable adults, so I don't underestimate how tough these jobs are. And when you think about those jobs, if you go and see a family you want to be able to interact with them. You want to be able to look at them, you want to look at who else is in the room, you want to be able to have a look around the house.

Popplewell’s hope is that tools like Copilot can reduce the note-taking and bureaucratic pressure on social workers and help them focus more on what they’re trained to do – spend more time focusing on “the things that aren’t said”, to assess situations and provide the best help they can. 

“When you think of being a social worker, you don’t think of doing admin. You think of sitting with a family and trying to resolve their problems, not doing admin and yet a lot of the job is admin. So if we can reduce that burden, so much for the better.”

A wide-angle shot of Glass Works Barnsley, the town center development project. People can be seen walking around shopfronts.

(Image credit: Barnsley Council)

Leading the way through innovation

AI is expected to form the backbone of Barnsley 2030, the borough’s strategy for improving life for its residents by the end of the decade. Across health, growth, innovation, and sustainability, Barnsley Council will play an integral role in meeting this goal. 

Popplewell says that as Barnsley Council is one of the borough’s largest employers, it’s important through schemes such as its Copilot adoption.

“When you think of digital innovation, your first thought wouldn't be local government would it? 

“Whereas I think if we're leading the way, it sets an example. There's also something about leveling the playing field, so this levels the playing field for a lot of people and broadens the potential skills that they have access to and therefore the potential jobs that they have access to. 

“If you want to work with an organization that's you know using AI, come and work for the council. If people go onto bigger and better things, then that's brilliant.”

Rory Bathgate
Features and Multimedia Editor

Rory Bathgate is Features and Multimedia Editor at ITPro, overseeing all in-depth content and case studies. He can also be found co-hosting the ITPro Podcast with Jane McCallion, swapping a keyboard for a microphone to discuss the latest learnings with thought leaders from across the tech sector.

In his free time, Rory enjoys photography, video editing, and good science fiction. After graduating from the University of Kent with a BA in English and American Literature, Rory undertook an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at King’s College London. He joined ITPro in 2022 as a graduate, following four years in student journalism. You can contact Rory at or on LinkedIn.