Technology could replace 250,000 public sector workers, according to Reform think tank

Written by Rebecca Hill and Jenni Davidson on 6 February 2017 in News

Websites and “chatbots” could replace a quarter of a million public sector workers over the next 15 years, according to a new report from think tank Reform

Robot on a wall - Image credit: Victory of the People via Flickr

Technology could replace 250,000 public sector workers over the next 15 years, according to a new report published today.

The Reform think tank said that using websites and artificially intelligent “chatbots” could radically change the public sector and save billions of pounds.

In its ‘Work in Progress’ report the right-leaning think tank argues that technology could allow up to 250,000 public sector jobs to be automated, saving the UK Government £2.6bn.

However, the report said that “cutting numbers should not be seen as an end in itself”, adding that technology should only replace jobs where it can deliver a better and more cost-efficient service.


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The report criticises the current government’s workforce structure for being too hierarchical, with a siloed approach to working and too many layers of management.

This includes a “frozen middle” of managers that are “unwilling to execute ideas without guidance from above”, and a general mindset that doesn’t allow the government to adapt its approaches to meet user needs.

Instead, Whitehall should be diamond-shaped, with some administrative roles automated and a much wider use of technology to improve the efficiency and quality of frontline and strategic roles, such as by making better use of data in delivering services.

Reform cited HMRC’s reduction in administrative staff – the department has cut numbers from 96,000 to 60,000 over the past decade – as an example of a department working to this diamond-shaped model.

However, HMRC has also come in for heavy criticism for its approach to reducing headcount, after misjudging its timings when in 2015 it cut staff numbers before new technology was properly embedded, leading to a collapse in customer service and the need to recruit more staff.

Although Reform does not mention this directly, the think tank said that headcount reductions must be done “strategically”.

The report also laments a lack of skills in the civil service.

This includes the struggle to recruit people with digital and technical skills – something that has been repeatedly raised by other government watchdogs and think tanks.

In addition, the report called for an increased focused on “non-traditional” skills, such as creativity and innovative thinking – with the latter being attributed to an aversion to risk and a culture that sees some senior leaders regarding technology as simply IT systems instead of a crucial part of service transformation.

Reform also criticised the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to learn from its mistakes, which the think tank said should be seen as a chance to have feedback and improve services.

“Leaders, including politicians, are wrong to 'bury' critical reports where that criticism is a valuable insight into public service operation,” the report said.

“A traditionalist mentality fails to cultivate a culture of change: mistakes are covered up, risk-aversion is rife and leaders have not built the workforce around the needs of users.”

Instead, Reform advocates Whitehall adopting a more agile working approach, with people employed on a project-specific basis – citing the creation of GOV.UK by a team of 16 people within 12 weeks and immediate feedback used for performance management, rather than “cumbersome annual appraisals”.

The report also recommended that government aims to empower its leaders, and suggests that it looks to the private sector for strong leaders that can drive a change in organisational culture.

They should be given more flexibility in the way their organisation works, for instance by being allowed to change the way they motivate staff – which may be personal satisfaction or external rewards. The target-based regimes that are common in the civil service “undermine both leaders and the motivation of front-line staff”, the report said.

This flexibility should also extend to recruitment practices, the report said, including offering them “some freedoms over public sector pay limits” – something that is often raised as a barrier to recruiting digital experts into the civil service.

Reform also said that the government could make better use of apprenticeships to fill digital gaps, as well as suggesting that lessons could be learned from the gig economy, saying that organisations with seasonal peaks, such as HMRC, could recruit additional capability at those peak times.

Alexander Hitchcock, the report's co-author, said: "Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively.

"But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable."

However, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “These proposals are the exact opposite of what is needed to improve our public services.

“Since 2010, more than 110,000 civil service jobs have gone and, to cope, some departments are now having to re-hire staff they’d cut.

“Technology can help enhance the delivery of public services, but human knowledge, skills and input remain crucial.”

A similar report from Deloitte last year suggested that automation could threaten up to 860,000 public sector jobs.

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