New AI unit will help drive down size of civil service, Dowden says

i.AI “crack squad” will take on welfare fraud, the asylum backlog and civil service reform
Photo: Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP/Alamy Stock Photo

A £5m unit will act as a “hit squad” to push the use of artificial intelligence across the civil service – and ultimately reduce its size, Oliver Dowden has said.

The Incubator for AI will be a “significant downward driver” on the size of the civil service, which has grown significantly since Brexit preparations and the Covid pandemic began, the Cabinet Office secretary said at a press briefing yesterday.

“What I see with this is a transformative tool to be able to enhance the pace of technology in a way that can help us deliver better outcomes with fewer inputs, and ultimately, that should be able to save taxpayers money,” Dowden told journalists.

He said the unit, which will be staffed by 20 to 30 people, will focus on five areas initially: welfare fraud, the asylum backlog, health, education services, and civil service reform.

“This is about trying to get a hit squad, crack squad that is going to go out there and actually bring a high level of expertise to try and identify innovative solutions to projects,” Dowden said.

The incubator – styled as i.AI – is a “team of technical experts which aims to help departments harness the potential of AI to improve lives and the delivery of public services”, according to a new website that launched this week on GOV.UK.

The joint Cabinet Office-No.10 unit will build and expand on the work of the No.10 Data Science team, which was set up in July 2020. One of its first priorities will be to deliver a “safe, secure, shared data infrastructure for government”.

“This will eliminate the need for individual service areas to build their own, often resulting in disjointed services, additional cost and greater risk,” the website says.

As well as improving public services, the unit will also aim to upskill “thousands” of civil servants and hire the best AI and engineering talent, it adds.

Dowden said his main aim for the unit is creating better outcomes for citizens. “But of course, through the deployment of technology, it’s always the case that we can find savings and actually I think there’s big scope for savings,” he said.

“I’m a Conservative, I want the smallest possible state and the best possible outcomes,” he added.

Job adverts for several roles at the unit, including AI, cloud platform and data engineers, went live yesterday. Salaries start at between £64,700 and £90,000 and go up to £149,000 a year.

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