Automation could free up talented public servants to focus on what they do best

Written by Alexander Hitchcock, Senior Researcher, Reform on 6 February 2017 in Opinion

Automation will need to be handled with sensitivity by managers – but any upgrade in public services must start with the workforce, argues Alexander Hitchcock of the Reform think tank

According to Ben Gummer, Brexit means “government at your service”. Speaking to the Reform think tank last year, the minister for the Cabinet Office said the referendum vote was, in part, a cry from citizens over "the state of government and their relationship with it”. As a result, government now needs to deliver new ways of working for public servants, embracing technology to deliver tailored, personalised, accessible services to citizens.

This ambition recognises that demands on services are fast-changing. Cybercrime and fraud account for an estimated 5.2 million cases of crime in the year to September 2016, compared to 6.2 million traditional crimes, such as burglary. In a world where 80% of people bank online, policymakers should be perplexed that just 7% of people book GP services over the internet. 

Any upgrade in services must start with the workforce – which accounts for 50% of day-to-day spend in the public sector. Reform research published today finds that 250,000 administrator roles can be automated. Replacing GP receptionists with online triage, as is being piloted in north London, and using chat bots instead of call centres are just two clear ways to do this. 

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And 130,000 of these roles can come from Whitehall. This will be disruptive and must be handled with sensitivity by managers, but follows recent approaches: the private sector has automated 50% of its administrative roles by some calculations. 

This should not be a salami-slicing activity, however. Ministers have too often taken tactical approaches to workforce change by freezing wages or removing jobs to save money, only to rehire staff – a practice the Department of Health has recently been accused of.

The aim should be to build a workforce around people’s needs. Taking a proactive approach to answering frequently asked questions is a positive start. GOV.UK Notify aims to do this by automatically updating people, through text messages or emails, about the progress of anything from passport applications to benefits claims. This can be used by more departments. More radically, public ledgers such as blockchain offer a new way to automatically execute transactions, such as benefits payments or corporate taxation, in a secure fashion. 

A new approach should be underpinned by a new mentality: a culture of innovation. Public-sector workers are more highly educated than their private-sector counterparts. Freeing talented staff to meet citizens’ needs through team-based, self-management models can allow public servants to design policies that meet under needs in innovative ways. The Government Digital Service used this model to build GOV.UK in just 12 weeks. Reform has identified at least eight bodies, from the Crown Commercial Service to the National Crime Agency, which could explore these models.

This builds on a new mentality signalled by Ben Gummer – one that moves from a focus on cost-cutting measures to designing sustainable services that work for citizens. A new culture is also a better offer for public servants, who are there to serve the public.

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Alexander Hitchcock, Senior Researcher, Reform
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Alexander Hitchcock is senior researcher at the Reform think tank. “Work in progress” is available at

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Submitted on 6 February, 2017 - 11:30
A culture of innovation in the Public Sector? Pull the other one! It may be that Public Sector workers are more highly educated than their Private Sector counterparts, but the fact of the matter is that the ability to solve problems and innovate which is a distinctive characteristic of the Private Sector, has been erased in the Public Sector due to incessant conditioning of the mind from an early age. Worse still, these same people have over the years migrated, through the revolving door in overwhelming numbers, to embark upon a second career in the Private Sector where they have conspired to stifle the few who retain the culture of innovation and free thought. It’s not so much a lack of skills in the Public Sector that is the problem, but a surplus of people with the wrong skills. @JagPatel3 on twitter

Miki Cvetkovic (not verified)

Submitted on 15 February, 2017 - 15:35
Public-sector workers are more highly educated than their private-sector counterparts? What research/ survey is the basis for your statement? Civil Service sector loses credibility with such self praising claims. Considering there are currently 31.84 million people in work (Office for National Statistics) and the Civil Service is comprised of 418,343 (31st March 2016, Office for National Statistics), it is a statistical impossibility to claim public sector workers are more highly educated.

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