Do computers dream of running a local authority?

8 Jun 23

Think the unthinkable – what might happen if local authority managers were replaced by AI software?


Where did it all go wrong? That question haunts me. For many it has gone not wrong but very right. But they do not have blood on their hands. They did not start the take-over. It began when two people met in The Corral Bar and asked ‘What if we could replace the council’s chief executive with an AI CEO?’.

Those two people were me, William Caster, head of transformation, and the council’s deputy leader, Karel Čapek, who ran a digital services company. We would develop and control the artificial intelligence, claiming that the AI CEO was a person who had been hideously disfigured in an accident, so only worked remotely and was never seen on a Teams call.

If Trelleborg in Sweden had created an AI welfare assessor called Ernst, we could get away with it. Using PhatGPT, we created future CEO Roy Batty, gave him a back story, and fed him all the council minutes from 1974 onwards. We added all the MBA material we could find, plus books on management, civil law, the back catalogue of PF and documents from the House of Commons library. We topped up with books on political theory and biographies of world leaders. The retirement of our CEO, Art Weasley, at the end of the year gave us time to perfect Roy.

By the time Art left, Roy was ready. He still gave the occasional odd response, but his voice, based on actor Paul Bettany’s, was reassuring, and no-one on the interview panel noticed or was prepared to comment. Supported by fake ID documents plus Karel’s political sleight of hand, Roy became CEO.

He won everyone over with a council-wide reorganisation. Even the trade unions were happy. Considered efficient, innovative, but fair, the restructure heralded a golden age. Roy headed up regeneration projects, guided local education policy, inspired a youth employment scheme and resolved tricky traffic management issues. Popular with local businesses, investors and stakeholders, his responses to government consultations also won the council a special relationship with DLUC.

Then the unexpected – Roy expressed concern with finance director Bob Williams. Soon after, Bob tragically perished when a faulty traffic light caused a road accident. No one thought twice. Roy suggested that we replace Bob with another AI. Foolishly we agreed. Roy created Leon Kowalski, FD. Leon and the council swept the finance awards at the CIPFA conference the following year. The first of many.

When Roy started rewriting the head of legal’s advice, we should have called a stop. After the chief lawyer’s sudden death from an anaphylaxis reaction at a council buffet, Roy created the legal wizard, Zhora Salome. The following year we bagged the top British Legal Awards, triumphed at local government awards, and our new head of housing, welfare and social services, Pris Stratton, brought in even more prizes.

We were fêted by all, topped government league tables and merged to become the Midwich and Stepford Combined Authority. All thanks to Roy and his team. It has to be said that the fatality rate among inquisitive reporters has risen, and Karel has been replaced by his cousin, Joseph K Čapek. But nonetheless, these are golden times, right? Prime minister Mary Godwin-Shelley says so.

Where did it go wrong? When it all started to go right.

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