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by Rebecca Hill and Jenni Davidson
28 October 2016
Digital transformation ‘struggling to meet ambition’, as automation threatens 860,000 public sector jobs

Digital transformation ‘struggling to meet ambition’, as automation threatens 860,000 public sector jobs

Robot - Image credit: PA images

More than 860,000 jobs could be lost to automation by 2030, according to a report published this week.

Deloitte’s annual The State of the State study for 2016/17 assesses public services across UK, particularly in light of Brexit, and looks at the trends that will affect the future of government, including automation and digital change.

Analysis by Deloitte suggests that 861,000 public sector jobs could be lost to automation by the end of the next decade, saving £17bn in wages compared to 2015.

Both central and local government bodies considering increasing the number of automated processes say the aim is to reduce the amount of repetitive and menial tasks, and argue that it will free up staff time to focus on more skilled jobs.

Mike Tulley, global head of public sector at Deloitte, said that wider research carried out by Deloitte “shows that while jobs are displaced by automation, new, higher-skilled and better paying jobs are created as a result”.

However, the report confirmed that automation will lead to a fall in public sector staff, with administrative and operative roles in local government expected to fall from 99,000 in 2001 and 87,000 in 2015 to just 4,000 in 2030.

According to the research, this will be followed by roles that involve interacting with people, such as frontline care workers, and jobs that require independent through and critical analysis.

It estimated that the number of care workers and home carers is projected to fall to 151,000 in 2030, from 331,000 in 2015.

Meanwhile, the number of health care practice managers is projected to fall from 10,000 in 2015 to 2,000 by 2030.

However, Tulley said: “For many roles, particularly those requiring a high degree of cognitive skill, automation is likely to complement roles rather than replace them.

“For example, senior figures in policing, fire and prisons could utilise technology such as data analytics to inform their decision-making, helping them better understand demand for their services and performance.”

The report also found that public sector leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress made towards a fully digital government.

Based on interviews with public sector leaders, the report notes that digital transformation is struggling to meet ambition and that the attitude of those working in the public sector is shifting.

It says that the tone of the interviews has changed “from ambition to frustration at the barriers to progress” and that most had said they wanted to see it accelerated.

For example, the head of a national body in Scotland is quoted as saying: “We’re at Digital 1.0, but Digital 3.0 or 4.0 is where we need to be.”

One permanent secretary in a devolved administration felt that their department was “always a year away from an outcome”, while a council chief executive rated his authority’s progress to digital as “four out of ten”.

The same dissatisfaction at progress is evident across the different areas of the public sector as well as across most of the UK, the report said.

However, the report said that the leaders understood the barriers to transformation, with a lack of skills being the most significant barrier to change.

This is not just in recruiting and retaining digital expertise, but in leading transformation.

One comment from a council chief executive highlights the problem. The chief executive told Deloitte that many of his peers “pass anything digital to the head of IT”, concluding that “there’s a lack of competency to lead in a digital environment” across the public sector.

Further barriers identified included risk aversion, fear of failure and recriminations about past mistakes, with one minister telling the researchers: “We’re scarred from big IT projects so there’s a timidity to push the envelope.”

Others said that poor planning had inhibited progress, with a number of comments indicating that there is a growing recognition within the public sector that they will need to innovate to reform whole services and not just focus on channel shift.

One council leader told Deloitte: “We’ve wasted time digitising systems that weren’t fit for purpose in the first place. It’s rethinking these systems that will radically improve productivity.”

The interviews also noted that digital exclusion was still a “live issue”, which is borne out in a separate section of the report that asked 1,000 members of the public how they wanted to engage with government.

It found that 59 per cent of people said they would use online as one of their top three preferred methods for finding out information about a public service.

However, phone still came out top in terms of percentages for all interactions with public services, and just 17 per cent said they would use online to make a complaint or ask for a problem to be dealt with.

This varied with social class, with younger people and those in more professional jobs more inclined to use online.

The report also suggested there is support for better data sharing within government, both within the bodies themselves to improve their own work and between bodies to improve outcomes for citizens.

It quoted one police and crime commissioner, who said: “How many times do we find when a child dies that every agency had a piece of the puzzle? IT is the way to make something happen.”

Deloitte makes one recommendation related to digital transformation, which is to “hack away at their organisation one step at a time – within a wider digital vision, and with relentless momentum – while avoiding the trap of simply digitising existing processes”.

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