The Government’s recent Transformation Strategy made reference to the use of technology to improve the efficiency and quality of front line and strategic roles, and last month the Reform think tank also published a whitepaper on the subject.
Reform argues that much of the money spent on the public sector workforce is administrative, i.e. that many roles perform repetitive tasks and therefore offer the greatest potential for automation.
This potential is huge – with an estimated £2.6 billion annual government savings made possible through Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
For anyone unfamiliar with RPA, it is the use of software and artificial intelligence (AI) to replicate how humans interact with a computer system.
Perhaps a more familiar example of this is one of the more popular apps that you can download to your smartphone – If This Then That (IFTTT).
IFTTT replicates frequent tasks you might otherwise manually do yourself, like using the location from your phone’s GPS to automatically turn your lights or heating off or on when you leave or return home.
Despite the public sector workforce being better educated, having more experience and being better paid than the private sector, Reform says that productivity is lower and has not changed in the last 20 years.
Of the total amount of money the Government spends every year, half of it goes on the public sector workforce – the top four areas include healthcare, education, central and local government, and the police alone account for £90 billion.
Some of this could be questioned, given the civil service has shrunk by 26% since 2006 and department budgets are now significantly smaller. Either way, looking at headline figures can be an overly simplistic way to justify investments in technology.
And being realistic: with Article 50 triggered, now is arguably not the time for wide-scale restructuring of the public sector workforce, which is already stretched to 30% beyond capacity by some estimates.
As part of single department plans and digital strategies, departments and agencies should innovate and learn from well-defined and manageable proofs of concept – ones that have potential to scale and support business cases focused on transformation.
Instead of measuring success by savings from reducing the size of the workforce, measure improvements to value for money, productivity, effectiveness and outcomes.
Start small and scale up and don’t be put off by the negative perceptions of AI.
Automation and RPA isn’t about a sci-fi creation of dystopian proportions with a world full of Bladerunners or Terminators. There are many examples that society is already comfortable with or adapting to, or even perhaps takes for granted, e.g. depositing cheques in an ATM at the bank, using RFID chips to return library books, and self-parking or soon-to-be autonomous cars.
While commentators are right to question the lack of ethical or moral judgement and audit trails within AI, starting small enables you to grow in confidence.
With global megatrends including an ageing and rising population, rising healthcare costs, urban migration, energy consumption and the internet of things (IoT), it’s not possible for government to mirror those challenges by growing spend and headcount – that’s why we’re seeing the pressures on services across the public sector.
At a time when the overall workload for the civil service is going up, what’s holding transformation and automation back is the lack of digital skills. This is backed up by the National Audit Office and others, including techUK, the UK’s IT industry body.
It’s also something that Global Data (formerly Kable) estimates is costing government an additional £252 million from hiring contract staff. And that will only get worse when contract rates increase from the IR35 “intermediaries’ legislation”, or else the skills gap will widen as contractors leave.
The way I see it, there are three options:
- Do nothing and the gap gets even bigger and services will really suffer.
- Keep doing what we’ve always done – “business as usual” – and the wage bill becomes too burdensome.
- Take a more radical approach, working with or “co-creating” with industry.
There will be areas of common services as well as departments having their own requirements – each will have a unique path to the digital future. Ultimately, though, departments should look at automation as an opportunity to really transform government and the work force, front to back.
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