The public sector should embrace AI not fear it

18 Dec 18

Finance teams are key players in supporting digital transformation projects, which could allow public sector organisations to provide faster and better quality services, says not-for-profit Eduserv’s Andy Powell. 

Robot automation


Artificial Intelligence is already being heavily adopted by businesses globally, to improve services, increase efficiencies and realise cost savings within companies.

However, it usually relies on the widespread availability of data in a well-structure digital form, and so far, the public sector has been slower to respond to this requirement. 

Eduserv’s research, in collaboration with CIPFA, revealed that while 58% of public sector organisations have a digital strategy in place, less than a third (28%) have a ‘digital-first’ approach to all new initiatives.

AI can make a huge difference to public services, and consequently, have a massive impact on people’s lives.

There are some that fear for their job security as robots become increasingly sophisticated, but that needn’t be the case. In fact, the World Economic Forum recently predicted that robots will create millions more jobs than they displace, with an estimated 133 million jobs worldwide in the next four years.

So what does the future hold?

Harnessing the benefits of AI in the public sector

AI is a big space, covering everything from machine learning across big data, through to bots – whether they are based on voice interfaces or chat bots - requiring natural language processing, machine learning, and so on.

When interfacing with Amazon’s Alexa, most people probably class it as advanced AI, even if in reality they are just doing what they might have done in the old days but using voice instead of a web form.

With that in mind, Alexa and Google Home are a good way for the public sector to start developing and implementing its own AI.

They are at the less complex end of the spectrum and can be a good aid when it comes to developing easy-to-use digital citizen services.

They provide a reasonably easy way to offer the user a new interface, even though you are not providing a new automated capability.

In Aylesbury, Vale District Council, for example, automated customer services and machine learning are being used to halve the time and cost of dealing with residents’ service requests.

A similar technology can also be found in Enfield Borough Council where the avatar ‘Amelia’ is now supporting their customer services.

Within the organisation, there are more subtle uses of AI appearing, such as the way that Microsoft are embedding AI into the Office 365 suite. For example, the “design ideas” on PowerPoint or the fact that Outlook will spot calendar entries and remind you that you have those coming up, while correlating traffic information and updates with user location.

How finance can help overcome blockers and drive AI

There are several barriers when it comes to digital transformation in public sector organisations, with legacy IT systems and practises ranking number one as the biggest blocker to successful digital delivery (75%), followed closely by “capacity or capability in IT”, according to our report with CIPFA.

Trust in new technologies and remaining stuck in old ways of working are also major barriers to the adoption of AI, however, local governments that embrace these new ways of working will thrive, allowing for faster and better quality services.

Finance teams are ideal key players in supporting digital transformation projects, alongside IT and the corporate leadership team.

Finance professionals could help to ensure that ‘digital change projects’ are more realistic – and, as our study showed, a clear majority (78%) of finance professionals agree. They believe that they should be involved both in the development of digital strategy and as a business partner in delivery - over and above traditional accountancy roles.

When it comes to planning for digital transformation projects that go beyond the IT department, finance teams are required to ensure there is a balance between the benefits of the new digital programme and the identification of risks and cost. In addition, finance professionals in public sector organisations should examine their most promising areas to start the project, which are those with lower risks, higher volumes and more certain ROI value.

Taking the first step

AI can be a much faster and accurate way for service delivery in the public sector, adding personalisation and efficiency compared to current manual processes – as long as all systems have the appropriate security standards.

For the successful and timely implementation of AI technology, it is necessary, however, to promote culture change within public sector organisations as barriers are usually more based on perception of users and professionals on dealing with machines than technology risks.

New technology, such as AI, can be an incredible asset for any organisation when used and implemented properly and automation does not mean human interfaces will be removed all together – instead allowing for personalised services and improved ways of working.

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