March of technology 'could make 250,000 public sector jobs obsolete'

6 Feb 17

Artificial intelligence and automation in the public sector could render almost 250,000 administrative roles obsolete, the Reform think-tank has concluded.

In a report published today, Reform examined how public sector productivity could be improved, while achieving better outcomes and saving money.

This was vital at a time of continued pressure on public spending as workforce costs accounts for half of all public spending. Currently, 5.3 million people are employed in the public sector, 20% lower than the peak level in 1979, the reported noted.  

Outdated staffing practices built around the “siloed attitudes of yesterday’s governments” were failing to cultivate a culture of change, according to the Work in Progress report. Meanwhile, “mistakes are covered up, risk aversion is rife and leaders have not built the workforce around the needs of users.”

The report concluded it was vital to transform the public sector to start delivering services in a way that was best for users. For example, around a third of people said they would prefer to book a GP appointment online; however, only 10% have done so. Moreover, private sector healthcare providers are already providing immediate access to GPs via video consultations for 350,000 people.

Current staffing arrangements are “bottom-heavy”, the report found. In primary care, there are 10 receptionists for every 14 clinicians, and almost one per GP. In government, 37% of civil servants fill roles defined as administrative.

The report noted recent attempts by Revenue & Customs to reduce the number of its administrative staff through introducing online services and improving real-time data availability.  

If administrative roles were thinned out in similar way across the public sector, central government could save £2.6bn from the 2016-17 payroll bill, and the NHS could save £1.7bn. In total, around 248,860 administrative roles could be made obsolete, the think-tank said.

Mistakes caused by human error and badly designed workforce structures could also be reduced if new technology is embraced. For example, the accuracy of decision-making in healthcare scenarios could be boosted using artificial intelligence.

Away from the technology sphere, improved management practices would also help to boost productivity. As such, leaders should be trained to learn from mistakes rather than focusing on attributing blame, the report advised. Moreover, to get the best out of their employees, managers should be allowed to motivate them as they see fit, “unencumbered by rigid pay and performance management structures and role definitions.”

Alexander Hitchcock, report co-author and senior researcher at Reform, said that public services must respond to a population with increasingly complex needs.

“Tight public spending means that public sector productivity must break from its 20-year trend of near-zero growth,” he said.

He noted the breadth of possibilities offered by emerging technology: “Various companies aim to develop artificial intelligence that can diagnose conditions more accurately than humans.”

The UK should, he said, “evaluate drones and facial-recognition technology as alternatives to current policing practice, while recognising concerns about the holding of people’s images.”

For the report, Reform interviewed 17 experts from across government, public services, academia and wider industry, and analysed public and private datasets, including Freedom of Information requests.

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