Jason Comer, Head of Marketing and Account Development at NSL says the allure of efficiency savings from Artificial Intelligence (AI) should not cloud judgement on the wider impact of technology on society. He urges service providers to harness new intelligent technologies in a way that will foster improved community engagement to deliver the greatest value and best possible outcomes.
If we are to believe that AI is going to replace 250,000 administrator roles in the public sector in the coming years, we need to be absolutely sure that our bright-eyed embrace of the internet of things, apps, big data and AI is not to simply gratify our desires for cost savings at the expense of meaningful relationships.
The headline statements from the Reform report, ‘Work in Progress – Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce’ (February 2017) are provocative. Many of the claims in the report will be alarming and attractive in equal measure to leaders in local government as they look protect and deliver services – to evermore demanding consumers – with less. Either way, subsequent media commentaries seem to be promoting a ‘save the date’ for the imminent arranged marriage between public services and its new robot masters.
However, despite the assertion we are on the threshold of a social and economic revolution driven by artificial intelligence, many innovation specialists consider such views to be rather premature. Like all technological advances, there is no doubt that the rise of AI will open exciting new possibilities in commercial applications as well as the provision of public services. The trick is to keep things in perspective. If we set our sights firmly on what really matters in terms of outcomes, and not fall head over heels in the belief that technology is the panacea, then we can view advances like AI with genuine interest.
Technology, like any tool, can be both boon and bane. The effectiveness of the tool is dependent on the skills and vision of the user. Carving out £4billion from the government wage bill would certainly get the job done when it comes financial targets. However, like a self-built IKEA kitchen, the long-term effectiveness of AI will very much depend on the way it is adopted and the vision we apply in its application.
AI is progressing and developing all of the time, as demonstrated by the remarkable progress with autonomous vehicles, medical diagnostics and smart living. The enthusiasm for AI among consumers should also not be underestimated. Each time a new technology comes out it is quicker to do something, it is more responsive and it can be done cheaper. Our record on implementing large, complex and multi-functional IT systems has, however, not been a universal triumph. And we need to see past the dizzy claims of cost savings and consider the social impact of such technological progress.
Certainly, the digital age is transforming the way we live and work and continues to have a profound effect on the service expectations of individuals and their willingness to interact with technology. We just need to have an open debate about our motives if we are really serious about the adoption of emerging technologies and, in particular, AI.
Over the past decade, local authorities and other areas of the public sector have been bombarded with initiatives and propositions covering everything from channel shift to service transformation and automation. The growth in self-serve is perhaps the most obvious sign of the digital revolution in public service provision, but demand for efficiency gains is relentless. With all of the low hanging fruit now picked, sliced, packed and eaten, the challenge to maintain efficiency improvements becomes that much more difficult. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that we are now using the real and projected capabilities of AI to raise the bar again.
It is all too easy to be caught up in this whirlwind of exuberant technological promise but we shouldn’t lose sight of the real priorities and the real views of the public. We must acknowledge the current drivers for transformation – costs. AI and automation is attractive because it reduces the resources required to deliver a service. That’s really important when funding is being squeezed and when, according to surveys by the LGA, resident satisfaction with value for money are now scoring in the lowest range of satisfaction indicators at just 50%.
General satisfaction with council’s is fairly high but is directly linked to the services that residents use the most – for a council to score higher it should focus on its refuse and street cleansing services. Looking at the low public turnout at local government elections, regular surprises at the polls and a growing sense of polarisation around issues such as Brexit, it would be fair to surmise that there is a significant level of disengagement with the providers of public services. If nothing else, these could be seen as clear warning signs that any suggestion that robots and AI are just what our local communities need after a decade of austerity would appear to be very wide of the mark.
It’s not because people have chosen to become more detached that communities and individuals are becoming increasingly polarised and disengaged from local government. It is, in part, because the pressure to save money and to do more for less, has led to efficiency gains from automation and online interactions taking the lead role. Many of these changes are well received and there’s no doubt they have often improved accessibility and convenience by providing access 24/7 from one’s computer, tablet or smartphone.
More and more our relationships with citizens are transactional in nature – you pay your taxes, we do x and y. If that is the case, is it natural to look at removing the middle person and letting residents contract with the private sector as individuals and groups? Following that argument, the next question has to be do we need local government at all…?
The answer, for me, is a resounding yes.
Of course, it is not just a case of outputs. Local government delivers value way beyond that of its service outputs. It creates beneficial outcomes for everyone by considering the needs of its diverse communities, the politically aware and active, the silent majority, as well as those with no voice at all. Councils help create employment, create environments and create places that let people and businesses thrive and stimulate local economies and job creation. Technology is making it easier to self-select the people we interact with and to choose those news platforms that reaffirm our bias. Local government, if it is to deliver its vision, needs to counteract this. The only way for this to be achieved is to ensure we focus on the real key objective – relationships.
If the next moves in public service automation fuel further disengagement among the community served by a local authority, then we are at risk of losing what matters most – those tangible outcomes that local people are looking for, expect and need. A worrying lack of trust will also continue to gather momentum. Consequently, we should be looking at new technologies as tools for improving our ability to deliver the required outcomes as efficiently and effectively as possible, but without sacrificing the core service ethos. Adopting this stance, new AI technology becomes a genuine enabler rather than a solution in itself and outcomes and value replace the current preoccupation with outputs, costs and jobs.
This is all the more important when one considers the increasing demands being placed on public services as a result of relentless demographic and technological change. Simply looking at efficiency gains will not be enough to meet these demands. It will require mutual understanding, education and encouragement. It will require a balance of responsiveness and versatility. It will require an appreciation of the way people and organisations relate to and support each other as well as the considered prioritisation of the disparate needs of different people within the local community. And, most important of all, it will require insight and perspective. All of which are dependent on meaningful and effective human – and machine – interaction.
Where’s the ‘on’ switch?
From this premise, if AI progressively helps to reduce the administrative burden on frontline staff, then the opportunity to increase the quality and level of frontline interactions with local communities becomes a very real possibility. This will drive more informed decision-making to ensure services continue to evolve around real needs rather than superficial convenience and the assumptions that underpin an over-reliance on virtual engagement.
So our headline moves away from the sensationalism of a huge number of job losses and inflated cost savings. Our focus shifts to a much more balanced statement that demonstrates tangible benefits for service provider and user alike – where the value and effectiveness of frontline human interaction is enhanced through the efficiencies derived from new intelligent technologies. Quite simply, we move towards smarter and more responsive service delivery that is founded on closer engagement, genuine value and the right outcomes.
We just need to decide – do we take the red pill or the blue pill?