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Reform argues technology will be key driver for public sector change

David Bicknell Published 06 February 2017

Role of automation flagged, with even the most complex roles at risk of automation


A report by the Reform think-tank has argued that financial pressures in the public sector means the sector must undergo radical change to deliver better value for money. And technology, digital service and automation will be a critical enabler.

According to the report, “Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce” tight public spending means that public-sector productivity must break from its 20-year trend of near-zero growth, as the demands on public services are seeing rapid change.

An ageing population, with increased prevalence of chronic conditions, requires a new way of delivering health and social care. At the same time, fraud and error is rife. In January 2017, experimental statistics showed that there were 5.2m examples of fraud and computer misuse offences in the year ending September 2016, almost as many as the 6.2m traditional crimes.

Meanwhile, citizens say they want much better digital access to public services. However, although a third of people say that they would prefer to book GP appointments online, fewer than 10% have done so. Three-quarters of people have said that they want digital communication with the police, but only half of that number have said it is currently possible.

The report suggests that tomorrow’s public-sector workforce will benefit from a much less hierarchical model which exploits advances in technology to help develop a leaner and better performing workforce.

It points out that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has reduced its numbers of administrative staff from 96,000 to 60,000 over the last decade through expanding online services and providing better real-time  information. It also aims to reduce headcount by 11,000 more. However, reductions of jobs must be done “strategically”, as a better way of working, rather than “salami slicing” roles to make savings.

According to the report, analysis by Oxford academics Frey and Osborne suggests that many routine administrative roles have a 96% per cent chance of being automated by current technology. By applying their calculations to current public-sector numbers, the report says, over the next 10 to 15 years, central government departments could further reduce their headcount by 131,962, saving £2.6bn from the 2016-17 wage bill. In the NHS, Osborne and Frey’s most conservative estimate reveals that 91,208 of 112,726 administrator roles (outside of primary care) could be automated, reducing the wage bill by approximately £1.7bn.

For many other roles, Reform says, new technology will increase productivity. The management consultancy McKinsey estimates that 30 per cent of nurses’ activities could be automated, with a similar proportion for doctors in some specialities, enabling those skilled practitioners to focus on their non-automatable skills.

The report adds that some technology will improve public-service delivery. It suggests “various companies aim to develop artificial intelligence that can diagnose conditions more accurately than humans.”

The report also argues that the UK should evaluate drones and facial-recognition technology as alternatives to current policing practice, while recognising concerns about the holding of people’s images.

Even the most complex roles stand to be automated, the report suggests. 20% of public-sector workers hold strategic, “cognitive” roles, and they will use data analytics to identify patterns – improving decision making and allocating workers most efficiently.

The NHS, for example, can focus on the highest-risk patients, reducing unnecessary hospital admissions, while UK police and other emergency services are already using data to predict areas of greatest risk from burglary and fire.

Whitehall should also move from hierarchy to “self-management”, with teams organising themselves around tasks that need to be done.

The report points out that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has done this to great effect, such as when a 16-person team designed GOV.UK in 12 weeks.

The report’s recommendations are:

  • Automate administrative roles where appropriate, including in the Civil Service to make Whitehall “diamond-shaped”. Employ technology to improve the efficiency and quality of front-line and strategic roles.
  • Disrupt hierarchies through fewer management layers and self-management models.
  • Cultivate a learning environment by empowering leaders to learn from mistakes, rather than attribute blame. Public services should make better use of randomised-control trials and agile working patterns.
  • Empower leaders to motivate employees as they see fit, unencumbered by rigid pay and performance management structures and role definitions.
  • Introduce new recruitment patterns, including targeting non-traditional entry routes, such as apprenticeships and digital contingent-labour platforms, to attract a wider skill base

Reform's Annual Conference is taking place this coming Thursday and it is understood that the event will offer Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer the opportunity to discuss and unveil the much-anticipated GDS transformation strategy.

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