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AI ‘can replace 250,000 public sector workers’



Think tank Reform says that using chat bots could save central government £2.6 billion per year

Automating more administrative roles in public services with artificial intelligence (AI) systems could remove almost 250,000 employees from payrolls, according to a new report on the future of the workforce.

Right-leaning think tank Reform makes the argument for the approach in Work in progress: Towards a leaner, smarter public sector workforce. It takes in a range of factors affecting the issue, but makes clear that the more advanced forms of digital technology could have a disruptive effect on the way the public sector is organised over the next few years.

It advocates the increased use of “diamond shaped” workforce, in which there are more staff in middle ranks while many of the tasks for lower ranking jobs are automated.

This could be supported by the growing sophistication of government websites and the use of chat bots – a form of artificial intelligence that can simulate a human conversation – a move that Reform says could remove the need for nearly 90% of central government’s administrators by 2030. It claims this would save Whitehall £2.6 billion per year.

Taking a similar approach in the NHS could replace 90,000 administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists, it says.

Search for tasks

The core argument is that leaders should look at the tasks that can be automated. It highlights possibilities including robotic process automation in legal services and the use of crowd monitoring drones by police forces.

The potential is being increased by the development of AI systems that can support tasks such as predictive analytics – the report cites the example of analysing burglary data – and responding to requests for information. The latter could work at a high level: in Japan the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is planning to use AI to help civil servants draft answers to questions submitted to ministers.

Alexander Hitchcock, co-author of the report, said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively.  But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”

GDS example

In looking at the structure of the public sector workforce, the report points to the Government Digital Service (GDS) as an example of organising self-managing teams when it built the GOV.UK website, arguing that this approach could be used throughout the Civil Service.

It says this kind of self-management model can help departments in responding quickly to changing demands or to be self-directed in executing policies.

Other elements advocate a shift away from a ‘blame culture’ to a ‘learning culture’ in which organisations learn from mistakes, and the creation of special units within departments that have greater freedom over pay, terms and conditions to recruit people with specific skills.

A new approach to recruitment would bring the profile of employees closer to that of the private sector, which has three times as many under-24s as a proportion of its workforce, the report says.

Read more on the potential of artificial intelligence in public services.

Image by Gwydion M Williams, CC BY 2.0 through flickr


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