Labour calls on Whitehall to create cross-departmental ‘Futures Unit’ at DG level

Automation can create jobs with the right policies in place, deputy leader Tom Watson says in new report

Automation need not cause mass unemployment, a new report from the Future of Work Commission finds. Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

By Tamsin.Rutter

13 Dec 2017

A “Futures Unit” should be created in Whitehall that would cut across departments at director-general level and respond directly to trends arising from the technological revolution, according to a report by Labour’s deputy leader.

The Future of Work Commission convened and co-chaired by Tom Watson said that “automation and artificial intelligence will create as many jobs as they destroy” if the right policies are implemented.

It envisaged a new unit headed by a “chief futures officer”, who would keep government abreast of technological developments, partner with business and academia, and pilot innovative applications across Whitehall.

The commission also called for the establishment of a “futures service” to train civil servants on the fast stream graduate programme in AI and related technologies. 


Watson set up the commission to “analyse and understand emerging trends and develop evidence-based policy”, and it concluded in a report published this week that Britain’s low productivity and falling wages have been caused by poor government decisions – not automation.

It argued that mass unemployment from automation was “highly unlikely”, but called for greater government intervention to prevent the gap in earning potential between high- and low-skilled workers opening up even further. 

The report makes wide-ranging recommendations on harnessing the potential of AI and automation to improve the future of work, with those that directly pertain to Whitehall gathered in a section named “prioritising good work”.

In this section, the commission said the “current approach to AI in the public sector is haphazard” and called for public sector bodies to have a duty to report regularly on their technology strategies. It also said a new Futures Unit would have a role in developing guidance on the intelligent use of technology in public sector procurement, and that a chief futures officer would advise government on new types of direct investment.

Watson’s report also envisaged new remits for the Bank of England, the Office for National Statistics and the National Audit Office. The former would be mandated to “target inflation, employment and growth as primary objectives”, while the ONS and NAO would “gather and assess the impact of changing working patterns and job quality”.

Elsewhere, other recommendations include developing an artificial intelligence curriculum for secondary schools, introducing a dedicated technology R&D budget set at a fixed percentage of GDP, and creating an independent cross-disciplinary Standing Commission on Ethics and Technology.

Watson co-chairs the commission alongside Helen Mountfield, a barrister and mediator at Matrix Chambers. Other commissioners include Naomi Climer, the first female president of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Nobel prize-winning economist Sir Christopher Pissarides, and Harvard University’s Michael Sandel.

“This report is important because Britain is not yet prepared for the technological revolution ahead of us, and unless government takes steps now to support the world of automation and support workers in transition in disrupted industries, then we’re going to see an economic disaster and a social disaster,” Watson said at the report launch. 

“This is a contribution to the debate about how we can embrace technology, not just let it disrupt all our lives.”

Climer, quoted in the report, said: “Britain is becoming more entrepreneurial and the opportunities for innovation growth pathways are vast. We must seize them."

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