Automation in the Public Sector

AI and Robotics will see an estimated 850,000 white-collar jobs lost by 2030

Automation is disrupting all sectors of society. It’s not difficult to see how automated machines will have an unprecedented effect on manufacturing, for example. Jobs that require repetitive labour have almost always been at risk of replacement by machinery, but now we’re dealing with a completely different type of machine. Advanced Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are teaming up to create automated systems that don’t just challenge employees on the production line – they’re even threatening professions that were previously thought of as ‘safe’. Of course, it’s not all bad. In their 2016/17 State of the State survey, Deloitte predicted that automation could save the UK government around £17 billion GBP by 2030. It’s no wonder that governments have been embracing innovation. The question, of course, is what effect this will have on workers in public services and on the public sector itself. Automation already plays a key role in the sector, from driverless trains to medical robots that record patient data. Technology such as this currently exists as an aid for human employees, freeing them from mundane processes. Examples of automation include responding to public enquiries, making predictions about potential crime and sifting through masses of information. In most cases, automated systems can do things quicker and with more accuracy than their human counterparts. This saves signifiant time, effort and money, which is attractive to any organisation. The future potential of these platforms within the public sector is vast, but somewhat surprisingly there are barriers to wider adoption. According to research by iGov Survey, 28% of participants were completely unaware of the possible improvements that could be made by implementing automation in their workplaces. As well as this, the shaky combination of new IT and old legacy infrastructures is complicating the process of finding a compatible system. However, once these barriers are overcome, automation will be startlingly disruptive.

How will automation disrupt the public sector?
Automation in the public sector might save the government billions of pounds, but it will also lead to the loss of an estimated 861,000 jobs. Over the next two decades, more than half of UK jobs in retail and a staggering 74% in transportation will be at risk of replacement by automated systems. That’s not exactly surprising considering the buzz around self-driving vehicles, but it is hugely worrying for unemployment levels. For example, the number of government administrative roles has already fallen by 12,000 since 2001, and this is only set to continue. On the other hand, some commentators have optimistically suggested that the use of automation could lead to the creation of more jobs, as automated systems require maintenance. This could have knock-on effects for education, as more emphasis is placed on IT and computer science in the curriculum. As much as technology is already changing public services, some leaders in the sector remain sceptical about the rate of digitalisation, claiming that it hasn’t lived up to expectations. This probably has something to do with current adoption rates – organisations are still wary about replacing humans in the working environment. However, the gradual shift to a digital world will improve confidence in advanced robotic systems and AI-enabled software. For the most part, automation will improve the public sector, cutting through endless red tape to locate relevant data in record time. It will also contribute massively to the rise of ‘big data’, enabling the further digitalisation of society.

The business angle. . .
Replacing human employees with automated systems is largely a good thing, especially from a business perspective. Installing mechanical workers and cognitive software can improve efficiency in time, costs and quality. A robotic, AI-powered surgeon, for example, would never botch an operation due to tiredness. It would also be almost impossible for it to make misinformed decisions. However, there are a number of considerations to bear in mind. If the public sector continues to invest in automated systems, they’ll also need to consider maintenance, security and development. Most systems now come with developer-friendly, open software that can be upgraded and tweaked to suit whatever environment it’s in. Therefore, automation looks like a worthwhile investment. Businesses that operate within the public sector should consider offering innovative, automated solutions before ambitious startups fill up the space. It’s not just companies within the sector itself that could benefit from the disruption of public services. So many workers are set to lose their jobs, and although this initially appears to be a serious issue, there’s a silver lining for businesses – particularly those in the entertainment industry. Something is going to need to occupy those displaced workers. . . think virtual reality, for example. Ultimately, automation will affect all sectors, even those that rely heavily on human decisions and interactions. The jobs that are most at risk are repetitive, physical and operative, but Deloitte’s 2016/17 State of the State survey clearly shows that the extent of automated disruption stretches further than this. Adopting automation in the public sector will lead to mass unemployment and the complete transformation of governmental services, which will in turn encourage even more innovation and the continued digitalisation of society. This disruption presents as many problems as it does opportunities, such as the displacement of thousands of workers and the vulnerability of mass data. However, for the most part, automation offers the chance to improve public services – and if it’s going to boost government coffers, administrators are incredibly unlikely to turn their noses up.

Does your business use an automated system? If not, would you consider investing in one? Will automation be as devastating for unemployment levels as the Deloitte survey suggests? Share your thoughts and opinions.