How civil servants can make the most of automation

Written by Colin Marrs on 3 October 2017 in Feature
Feature

Technology may never replace the need for human civil servants, but our panel of experts recognised a direction of travel. Colin Marrs reports from a CSW round table

In 1965, Time magazine published an article predicting automation enabled by computers would bring about a 20-hour working week and create a mass leisure class. “Some of the more radical prophets foresee the time when as little as 2% of the workforce will be employed, and warn that the whole concept of people as producers of goods and services will become obsolete as automation advances,” the article reported.

Some hope. More than half a century on, many civil servants would be grateful if they had to work less than 50 hours a week. But government’s dream of reducing costs by harnessing automation has not died – in 2013, an Oxford University report claimed 250,000 public sector jobs could be replaced by computers.

Civil Service World, in partnership with global technology and innovation company IBM, recently gathered senior Whitehall decision makers at a round table to discuss progress towards – and the further potential of – automation in assisting Whitehall’s transformation agenda.


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Austerity is a key driver for the renewed push towards automation in government, the group heard. “Over recent years, our agency has driven down annual administration costs from around £112m to £78m and we need to take a further £50m out,” said Shaun McNally, chief executive of the Legal Aid Agency. “Automation is one vehicle through which we are going to be able to achieve that.”

Attendees reeled off a list of successful existing initiatives from their own departments. Automation is currently playing a larger and larger role in helping identify and catch smugglers, according to Esther Wallington, chief people officer at HM Revenue and Customs. “We stop vehicles crossing the border based on risk,” she said. “We put a lot of effort into this, and a lot of the risk assessment is done using robotics.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also inserting robotic technology into the centralised communication and contact centres that it has built up in recent years, according to Graham Nelson, who is head of the Open Source Unit within the department. “We are adding in artificial intelligence, neuro-linguistic programming and entity extraction, to provide a first response to the majority of our customers, so that our consular teams are freed up to support the most vulnerable,” he said.

Taking mundane tasks away from administration staff is, then, already improving efficient working in government, and can even assist with operational decisions. But some on the panel believed that automation could be pushed much further – into making decisions on masses of individual cases. Referring to the process for deciding whether applicants are eligible for legal aid, McNally said: “The reality is that implementation of the rules is capable of being automated.”

However, he admitted that the public’s perception of such “computer-says-no” decision-making was unlikely to be favourable. “There is going to be a general cynicism that something sinister lurks within,” he said.

Experience from the private sector suggests the barrier is surmountable, said Stefan Czerniawski, strategy director at the Department of Work and Pensions. “If you think about how you borrowed money 30 years ago,’” he said, “you went and talked to a human being who made a judgment depending on the cut of your jib. Nobody goes to talk to a human being to borrow money anymore. It is an automated process which brings together a pile of data. We have come to accept that robots make lending decisions, and that’s uncontroversial.”

Recent misery suffered by Southern Rail commuters also came up during the debate as an illustration of another challenge – the sensitivities of existing staff who worry that they are going to be replaced by robots. Ongoing strikes and staff shortages on the network resulted in huge disruption to passengers – all stemming from worries raised by unions about the removal of a guard to press a button and manage doors.

Chris Southworth, deputy director of tax administration: spending and reform at HM Treasury, said that the case showed how vital it was to assess the impact of automation on staff. “One of the key elements is that the digital labour strategy must be thought through, and must be a key part of the overall transformation plan that you implement from day one,” he said. “If you haven’t thought about it ahead of time you’re likely to burn yourself on the stove.”

“There is a bias against almost any sort of machine-driven judgment when I present findings which have a degree of automation in them” Graham Nelson, FCO

The truth, he said, was that although statistics showed that 45% of all tasks could be completed by robots, this did not equate to the same proportion of job roles becoming redundant. “In fact, less than 5% of jobs can be completely automated,” he said. “It is really elements of jobs we are talking about and that is where the difficulty really lies.”

Wallington was also keen to attack the perception that automation pits man against machine in a battle for jobs. She said the successful blend of data and the human brain was not going anywhere fast. “Quite a lot of the data is put together by the individuals who are making decisions,” she said, “and so when we’re building the algorithms, it is human intelligence that allows us to decide which vehicles we might stop at the border. Actually, a lot of it is based on what we already know from those people who have the experience.”

Despite the clear benefits, a culture of scepticism about automation remains in some reaches of the senior civil service, according to Nelson. “There is a bias against almost any sort of machine-driven judgment when I present findings which have a degree of automation in them,” he said. “We sometimes present an analysis where we have looked rigorously across 10,000 sources, but if you use a graphical format or put the word ‘data’ in the title, half the audience will turn off and say ‘we just want to know the policy implications’.”

Some around the table felt that teething problems being experienced with the implementation of automation were down to the fact that the machinery of government was designed during an analogue age. “At the moment, we are grappling with redesigning our processes, which are still rooted in a human-led, paper-based Victorian tax system,” said Guy Leeser, deputy director, head of strategic design (Making Tax Digital) at HM Revenue and Customs.

Automation and the wider adoption of digital technology could, however, drive a “re-imagining” of current processes, said Chris Moye, vice president and senior partner of global enterprise transformation at IBM. Although automation can help with making these legacy processes more efficient, the real prize would come from asking: “What does the technology enable you to do that is totally different and better than what we have today?” he said.

Simon Rew, public sector leader of global business services at IBM, expanded on the theme. Talking about a recent project the company carried out with one government agency, he said: “They think about a completely different way of safeguarding, saying ‘let’s think about the end objective and let’s think about how the technology that is available today could do that in a completely different way, rather than this process that we have actually inherited from the physical world.”

Government is, then, still at the foothills of what automation technology could achieve. However, the barriers raised by the panel show that it might be wise not to expect the creation of a new leisure class any time soon. Southworth said that getting a grip on expectations would help Whitehall reap maximum benefits from automation. “Everybody got super excited, saying: ‘Every job will be changed. It will be great – we will solve world hunger.’ That’s actually not happening and we’re stumbling through that trough of disillusionment. But we will come out and then get to a reality plateau that we can actually work with.”

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