By Jonathan Owen

17 Oct 2019

Jonathan Owen reports on a round table discussion exploring how government can adopt and exploit the potential of automation and artificial intelligence

Depending on your point of view, the very mention of the words ‘automation’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ may generate excitement for the future, or the fear that you will be replaced by a machine.

At a recent round table sponsored by software consultancy ThoughtWorks and held at Civil Service Live in London, senior civil servants gathered to discuss how to approach and these technologies. The session was chaired  by Peter Schofield, permanent secretary for the Department for Work and Pensions.

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to automate in all sorts of different ways to take costs out of the system, to reduce the inaccuracy that comes from some manual processes, but the big challenge for us is knowing where to focus our efforts,” Schofield said. 

Some departments have embraced automation, with the likes of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Department for Work and Pensions, HM Prison and Probation Service among those using aspects of the technology. The Ministry of Defence and the NHS are also considering setting up centres of excellence in a bid to exploit the technologies.

“Some of us are interested in AI and automation because it’s an opportunity to reform the way we serve the public, maybe to improve the quality of what we do, some of us are looking at it because it’s an opportunity to deliver savings in the context of a spending review, in some cases it’s around a policy goal we are trying to achieve,” Schofield remarked.

The benefits can be dramatic.  In the case of the UK Hydrographic Office, a trading fund of the MoD, using automation in how it calculates tides has resulted in a process that used to take around six hours now taking just a few minutes.

'The benefits can be dramatic' 

Change is taking place across DWP, according to Kenny Roberts, the department’s director of digital platforms and capabilities. He described how an “industrial capacity” had been developed to deliver “robotic solutions” being rolled out across the department.

Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, described how the technologies can have a wide application of uses, ranging from “predictive analytics looking at case outcomes, to the listing of cases.”

In terms of tackling the transition from old to new IT systems, HMCTS is using “robotic process automation as a bridge between now and the future,” she said. 

Major government projects could benefit from the application of new technologies, according to Philip Graham, chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission. “We are very interested in AI in terms of improving the efficiency of our infrastructure networks,” he said.

Efficiencies through automation are also being considered at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  “We are interested in how far we can automate our straightforward consular services overseas, primarily so that our staff can focus on those who are vulnerable,” Paul Bute, the department’s head of consular strategy and network, said. 

“Machine augmented decision support capability” has been used by HMPPS over a number of years, according to Ian Porée, the agency’s executive director of community interventions. “Some of the biggest and most important decisions we make about public protection are made with the help of a set of algorithms to help us predict the likelihood of bad things happening,” he said. The approach is one of using technology to support people and allow them to focus on the human part of their jobs, Porée added.

One concern raised was the sheer pace of change and the pressure this places on government. The challenge of regulating in a fast moving environment was raised by Jonathan Brearley, executive director at Ofgem, who said: “We need to be faster and more responsive as an organisation.”  

Jim Gumbley, technology principal at ThoughtWorks, told delegates to remember that AI and automation are just two more technologies. “They do bring particular benefits but they’ve got disadvantages too. They’ll work in some circumstances, they will be ineffective in other circumstances. The main thing is not to be scared of them and not to be confused by some of the marketing that is out there,” he said. 

Ian Ackerley, chief executive of National Savings and Investment, called for greater sharing of technology expertise across government, something which others around the table agreed was needed. “At the moment we are a bunch of ships setting sail on our own,” he remarked. 

Professor Tom Rodden, chief scientific adviser for Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, pointed out that DCMS already has office of AI, with 16 staff, and a remit to increase the use of AI across government.

Oli Blackaby, crown commercial lead, Cabinet Office, paid tribute to the “incredible amount of learning” at some NHS trusts. He cited the research partnership between Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and AI firm DeepMind Health. The sharing of existing knowledge across the wider NHS could have a transformative effect, he said.

The importance of the quality and availability of data in realising the potential of AI and automation was a theme that emerged during the session.

Another issue raised was the need for a change in mindset. “We don’t know anywhere near enough, we need to recognise that we need to learn, it’s probably not about learning about the technology, it’s about thinking in a different way,” Stephen Braviner Roman, director general at the Government Legal Department, said. He cited a story of Black & Decker telling sales people it sells holes, with the drills that people purchase merely the means to this end.

Senior leaders need to remind organisations of their raison d'être, according to Schofield. “We all get wrapped up in what we are doing but not necessarily the purpose,” he said. 

He concluded the discussion on a philosophical note. “AI sometimes draws us to question our own value as people, as leaders, as professionals, and being able to rise above that which is something we ask of our people,” he said, “and sometimes we don’t ever ask of ourselves.”

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