Tech 100: 'Whether we like it or not, we may all soon become obsolete unless we shift too'

Written by Charlie Anderson on 20 March 2017 in Comment

Charlie Anderson, Head of ICT for Fife Council, on what automation and machine learning will mean for the public sector in the not too distant future

If you work in ICT/digital roles in the public sector you’ll be facing a bit of a dilemma at the moment. There is little doubt digital and technology solutions will transform and disrupt public services.

In that respect, those driving or enabling that change could either be viewed as a herald of doom or the answer to the seemingly insoluble problems of growing demands against a backdrop of reducing resources.

It is no mistake that technology shifts already disrupting established private sector industries are top of the agenda in lofty gatherings like the World Economic Forum.

Automation and machine learning potentials, coupled with a smartphone boom that has seen an explosion in relatively cheap sensor-enabled technology, can and will have a huge impact on a public sector-facing unprecedented challenges.

Predictions for automation and more specifically the job roles that will be impacted over the next 10 to 25 years reveal why the public sector can’t ignore this.

It is suggested those working administrative and office-based roles, field-based/mobile roles, knowledge-based roles and customer-facing/interacting roles all face apparent obsolescence in the same way that robotics and automation drove reductions in the level of manual labour in the last century.

It is noteworthy that all of these endangered roles essentially form the bulk of any current public sector organisation.

As the public sector faces the challenge of reducing costs, when the bulk of the costs are in people, there is an inevitable, if potentially painful, journey ahead.

The most immediate impact of this new wave of automation will be to administrative and office-based roles as the need for data entry and manipulation and the need to manage non-digital media and interaction decreases.

Increasingly, this will stretch beyond clerical roles to more rules-based processing roles. Automation of "assess and decide" – the backbone of any agency dealing with entitlement, signposting or public advice – is inevitable.

It is not that difficult to foresee a bonfire of in-trays and filing cabinets and the closure of more corporate offices.

The need for field-based and mobile roles will also change and diminish. Current and early mobile-enablement of these roles in the public sector, through adoption of smartphone and tablet technology, will quickly transition into much more proactive and ultimately predictive services.

Organisations will increasingly seek to exploit the internet of things in telecare/telehealth and also in smart asset implementations, developing analytics to get real insight from the masses of data they are gathering.

This will transform health and local government as routine inspection and monitoring tasks as well as the predictive and preventative measures are automated, leaving a much smaller core of genuine hands-on services.

Some would argue this is essential to resolve the current challenges caused by the demographic time bomb impacting health and social care. It also has implications for agencies in terms of management of assets - houses, fleet, buildings, streets, utilities, infrastructure.

They could quickly move beyond a position of better management of assets to asking fundamental questions on why they need to own them at all.

The professional classes should also not consider themselves safe from automation. The automation of more skilled professional roles currently based on experience and learning will also be threatened as machine-learning develops and takes hold.

You only have to look at the explosive progress towards self-driving cars to realise that processing power and machine self-learning can put automation at the heart of what has previously been considered incapable of automation.

Are we that far from paralegal activities such as conveyancing becoming a fully automated experience? Or even more complex legal cases being considered by “robot lawyers”?

Some would say the professions will always be required – but that may only be to advise on the adjustments to their technological counterparts.

Finally, the public sector may seek to rest on the fact it is there to serve the public and will always need to interact personally with citizens.

While that may be true in some particular cases, increasingly the public at large have already become more accustomed to accessing services without human interaction – or even interaction directly with the agency providing the service.

When did you last speak face to face with someone from Amazon? Or your bank or insurance company?

The advent of truly digital service provision means moving beyond websites to truly digital services accessible from any device, app or customer channel. This will inevitably disrupt public services in the way we have already seen in the insurance, financial, travel, entertainment and retail sectors.

More recent developments in human-machine interaction, such as the much-touted Amelia from IPsoft or the more familiar if similarly named Alexa from Amazon, show how far developments have progressed on this front.

While we’re closing those offices and retiring assets, we might as well dispose of the contact centres too…

It’s clear that the mechanics and processing of operating a public sector agency will be greatly changed by the new wave of automation and digital services.

What about the potential disruption to what many would see as the core business of government – responding to the democratic will of the people and setting appropriate direction and policies?

We have already seen the potentially disruptive nature of social media on governments globally but the future of representation may change when votes and opinions can be so easily recorded and campaigns can go viral more quickly than traditional petitioning or lobbying processes.

So for those who work in public sector ICT and digital roles, it’s a great time to be enabling change – but don’t be surprised if others around you look at you with a certain fear in their eyes.

Whether we call it digital transformation or some new buzz-phrase heaves over the horizon, technology will change public services in ways we have only started to grasp.

Some will see it as the only sustainable way to maintain or even improve services, others will doubt the public sector will be that easily shifted.

I’ll close by noting that my first ICT job was in the public sector 30 years ago at a time when all of our agency processing was carried out on an expensive, single room-sized computer – a mainframe.

My colleagues at the time felt sorry that I had been dispatched to work on what they referred to as the “toy computers”, which would they informed me “would never catch on”.

Those “toy computers” were the PCs and network servers that heralded the age of distributed computing, which within 10 to 15 years had consigned the mainframe to history – and the skills that went with it.

If anything, the latest technology ground-shifts are even more disruptive and progressing even more quickly than that last major shift.

Whether we like it or not, we may all soon become obsolete unless we shift too.

Charlie Anderson is head of ICT for Fife Council

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