AI ‘could shrink UK civil service by two-thirds’ says former UK government HR chief

By on 26/06/2023 | Updated on 26/06/2023
Scale balancing human worker with AI

Rupert McNeil, the former head of human resources for the UK government, has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) could replace two-thirds of civil service roles over the next 15 years.

Speaking to members of parliament on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 20 June, McNeil said he estimated that AI could mean that UK government would only need around 150,000 civil servants by 2040, down from the 488,400 full-time equivalent officials as recorded in the quarter to March, the most recent figures.

Asked by MPs about the future impact of AI on the civil service, McNeil said that deployment of AI tools in government would mean there would be “a much flatter structure”.

“There are some general rules of large organisations, which are pretty well established, which say that no organisation needs to have more than nine layers,” he said. “If the top layer is the top of the executive – prime minister, cabinet secretary – and the bottom two layers increasingly in modern organisations are being done by bots and AI, then you have a much flatter structure.”

He added: “The question is, how many people should there be? The number that I reached was, by the mid to late 2030s, the civil service should be about 150,000 people, if you take all those things into account. Now it is closer to half a million.”

Such an approach would require “all sorts of investment in technology and in the way in which you are servicing the public”, he added.

McNeil, who served as government chief people officer between 2016 and 2022, said that when he left the civil service, he had advised senior colleagues to “start having these conversations now about the inevitable workforce reductions that will be necessary because of AI”.

Read more: Agricultural advice AI wins Canada’s Public Service Data Challenge

Romania appoints new digital minister after unveiling world’s first AI government adviser

Meanwhile, in Romania, a government reshuffle on 12 June saw the appointment of a new minister for digitisation – whose remit will cover AI – a few months after the country unveiled the world’s first AI government adviser.

The newly appointed minister, Bogdan Gruia Ivan, is expected to take over the country’s innovation, research and digitalisation portfolio with the aim of accelerating government towards digital transformation, and has vowed to improve digital infrastructures, interoperability, and government use of cloud and AI.

Faced with a poor digital development ranking within the EU, Romania has mobilised a fifth of its National Recovery and Resilience Plan – around €5.97bn (US$6.15bn) – towards achieving its digital objectives.

AI has become a focus for Romania in recent months. In March, the country’s prime minister Nicolae Ciucă introduced his cabinet to ‘Ion’, an AI-powered “honorary adviser”, which can respond to the prime minister’s prompts in a simulated voice, as well as “quickly and automatically capture the opinions and desires” of Romanian citizens.

As reported by Politico in March, according to Nicu Sebe, the coordinator of the research team behind it, Ion will gather the contributions of Romanians – who will be able to submit their ideas through an accompanying website as well as on social media and some in-person locations – analyse the information it receives and draw up reports about citizens’ priorities.

Read more: AI could deny vulnerable citizens public services, fears EU chief

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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