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Government Must Use AI To Cut 250,000 Jobs, Says Reform

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Think tank Reform urges the use of artificial intelligence, chat bots and drones to automate everything from public-sector administration to policing

The public sector should adopt digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, drones and facial recognition to automate everything from civil service posts to nursing to policing.

That is according to a new study from think-tank Reform, which sees its approach cutting government costs by rendering “at least” 248,860 administrative roles redundant by 2030.

The study, titled Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce, appears ahead of the group’s annual conference on Thursday, at which Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer is expected to unveil the government’s long-delayed digital strategy.

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Automation

The Reform study found online tools such as websites and artificially intelligent chat bots could see 130,000 Whitehall administrative staff, or 90 percent of current employees, automated out of jobs over the next 15 years, resulting in savings of about £2.6 billion a year.

The approach would replace 90,000 NHS administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists, saving £1.7 billion annually, while 30 percent of nurses’ activities, including collecting information and administering non-intravenous medication, could also be automated, Reform argued.

The group said public spending cuts mean government productivity must follow trends in the public sector, rather than remaining nearly flat as it has over the past 20 years.

Artificial intelligence (AI) could also be used to improve healthcare decision-making and the accuracy of diagnosis and to better understand problems such as the medical errors that affect 10 percent of hospital patients.

“The current workforce is a legacy of past approaches,” Reform stated. “It is built around siloed attitudes of yesterday’s governments and fails to embrace technology and new ways of working to meet users’ needs in the most effective ways… Public services should deliver outcomes that matter to users, and meet expectations of interacting via technology.”

‘Self-management’

Reform praised HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for reducing its administrative staff from 96,000 to 60,000 over the past decade through expanding online services and providing more real-time information,

Its remarks stand in contrast to those of the NAO, which criticised HMRC’s cost-cutting for resulting in a service collapse in the first half of the 2015-16 tax year.

Reform also called for a move from hierarchy to “self-management”, with teams focused on delivering projects, pointing out that a 16-person Government Digital Service (GDS) team designed GOV.UK in 12 weeks.

Police could use drones and facial recognition to cut policing costs, just as they are already using data analytics to focus on areas at the greatest risk from burglary and fire.

The paper also acknowledges that productivity must not be considered in isolation and that comparisons between the private and public sector are “complex”.

“Productivity increases are meaningless if services do not meet the needs of citizens,” the study observed. 

Efforts to introduce AI and data analytics into public-sector services such as the NHS have met with controversy, with privacy activists sceptical, for instance, of the benefits of giving DeepMind, owned by Google parent Alphabet, broad access to hospitals’ patient data.

Digital strategy due this week

The Cabinet Office’s GDS, jointly overseen by Gummer and chief secretary to the treasury David Gauke, was initially expected to produce the government’s digital strategy in December 2015, but the release was pushed back until later in 2016 and then delayed again by the referendum to leave the European Union in June.

GDS had said it would release the strategy in September, then before Christmas, and is now expected to publish the document on Thursday to coincide with Reform’s conference, at which Gummer is to deliver the keynote, according to people in government familiar with the matter.

An early draft of the plan leaked late last year indicates priorities in line with those of the Reform study, prioritising a digital overhaul of the specialised back-office functions across the civil service.

Several parliamentary committees have criticised the government for its long delay on the strategy, pointing out that work on areas such as the digital skills shortage and economic strategy depend on the broader plan.

Last month Stephen Metcalfe, chair of parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, said he was “disappointed” at the delay.

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