From AI to net zero: what governments are focusing on around the world

By on 13/07/2023 | Updated on 13/07/2023
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Government are dealing with major trends influencing the work of public services around the world. This article examines issues from artificial intelligence and building citizen trust and engagement, to the global economic picture, and net zero, resilience and sustainability.

Governments around the world are facing many challenges. Inflation is proving persistent – and even where it has been controlled, the impact of higher inflation is now baked into the delivery of public services, meaning financial pressures are likely to persist.

And governments need to take action to tackle climate change with warnings from, the UN Climate Change executive secretary Simon Stiell saying the world needs to “course correct to get the world on track to limiting the temperature rise in line with the Paris Agreement”.

There are also opportunities for governments to reform. In recent months, public awareness of – and government interest in – artificial intelligence has grown, and governments are looking to deploy both to streamline their own work and processes, and how they will use it to deliver for citizens.

This article will take a look at how governments are responding to these key trends.

Using AI in government

Governments around the world are examining the use of artificial intelligence tools  like ChatGPT to help reduce public sector bureaucracy and improve the delivery of public services through automation and better use of data.

The government of South Korea has, for example, has set out plans to use artificial intelligence to improve services for citizens by automatically notifying individuals of their entitlement to the country’s more than 1,000 welfare benefits.

Governments are also exploring whether the development of artificial intelligence will impact workforce planning. Rupert McNeil, the former head of human resources for the UK government, has warned that artificial intelligence 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.”

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

Governments also need to be aware of the risk of biases being embedded in AI decision making that could perpetuate – or accentuate – existing inequalities. A recent Global Government Forum webinar looked at how governments are working to ensure that AI is equitable for all.

We heard from public and civil servants in Germany and Scotland, as well as the Jalisco state government in Mexico, and heard about both the potential and challenges for of using AI in government – from how the Jalisco is using AI based referral systems to identify diabetes in parties, and how Germany is using machine learning and AI to analyse data of construction site accidents to help identify sites with a higher risk of accidents, allowing for intelligence based inspections.

However, we also heard about concerns on the use of AI in public services. Laura Carter, who is the senior researcher in public sector algorithms at the Ada Lovelace Institute, for example, highlighted a lack of clarity about how governments need to treat data when they use AI, with contrasting regimes of UK GDPR and the Equality Act making it hard to demonstrate compliance with regulations. Concerns were also raised that frontline workers are unlikely to rely on or trust outputs from data analytics systems if the rational for how those outputs are generated wasn’t clear, and analytics should be explainable in a way that is accessible to everyone involved in the system.

One in ten Canadian public servants already using AI for work purposes

This interest in AI was also revealed in a Global Government Forum survey that found that more than 10% of Canadian public servants say they have used artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT in their work.

A survey of 1,320 federal employees across the Canadian Public Service revealed the attitudes of officials to the use and development of AI.

When asked if they have used AI tools like ChatGPT and Bard for work purposes, 11% of officials said they had – 8% sometimes and 3% often.

The survey also identified the areas where Canadian public servants are most positive about using AI.

Officials were keenest to use AI to process large amounts of data (61% were either excited or positive about the opportunity), and for real-time analysis and monitoring of public service delivery, for example traffic flow analysis, or improving healthcare services (48% either excited or positive).

However, public servants raised a number of strong concerns about the potential use of AI in some areas of public service delivery. Nearly half of officials (48%) said they were very concerned about the “accountability and responsibility for AI-based decisions and actions” in government. Over two-fifths of officials were concerned about both the potential over-reliance on AI leading to a lack of public service autonomy and decision-making capabilities (44%) and public servants’ lack of understanding and familiarity with AI hindering its use (41%).

GGF will be reporting in full on the findings from this survey in the coming weeks.

AI also featured in the winning idea of the Public Service Data Challenge final in Canada in June. The challenge saw public servants of all disciplines, organisations and seniorities invited to send in their ideas for how government could make better use of data, or to volunteer to join one of the interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams formed to research and develop the most promising ideas, which then went through a judging process before four finalists presented to a ‘Dragons Dens’ style panel.

This judging panel comprising senior data specialists first picked a seven-strong longlist, then narrowed the field down to four at a semi-final in January. The winning idea involves replacing Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s existing services search function – which receives just 15,000 visitors annually – with a specially-trained version of ChatGPT to provide clear advice and answer follow-up questions. The team has worked with risk management experts to avert the risk of discrimination or bias, and trained AgGPT not to recommend specific commercial services.

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

Building citizen trust and engagement

As governments embrace the use technology such as AI, an opportunity emerges for governments to undertake a much broader range of citizen engagement than they have been able to throughout history.

There is also a need for governments to build citizen trust in the digital era. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) named new ways of engaging citizens and residents among the trends in its Government Innovation 2023 report which highlights increased engagement with citizens and residence as a way to enhance representation, participation and openness of government.

The OECD highlights a host of possible innovations – from citizens’ assemblies and juries for policymaking to what it calls matrixed government, where the public sector restructures itself to respect, recognise and enable different ecosystems to collaborate in order to make key contributions to society.

The OECD also shows why action is needed. Its Survey on the Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions in 2021 found half of respondents, across 22 countries, say the political system does not let them have a say in government decision making, and less than a third are confident that the government would use inputs given in a public consultation. These perceptions persist despite the OECD also finding that in most cases, at least half of participant’ recommendations are accepted by public authorities.

However, this perception chimes with a finding in the 2023 Responsive Government Survey, which found that the proportion of officials who believe their organisation has a cyclical improvement process that integrates citizen and end-user feedback has fallen from 58% in the 2021 survey to 45%. This was the biggest year-on-year decline of any category in the survey, hinting at a wide underutilisation of user feedback. The same proportion of public and civil servants agree that their organisation has the necessary cyclical processes to support improvement.

We also know that government are looking to take action. In November 2022, 42 countries around the world adopted the Declaration on Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy, with action planned under two categories: creating opportunities for inclusive public participation and deliberation, and strengthening democratic representation.

Among the opportunities identified is establishing where participative and deliberative processes can be used, and encouraging the involvement of citizens and stakeholders in such a way as to ensure that their contributions have more transparent and measurable impacts. This would include designing citizen participation and deliberation processes in a way that breaks down barriers to participation and encourages people to take part, and fostering a culture of – and building capacities for – participation and deliberation in the civil service and in society at large.

Read more: ‘There’s a sense parts of the public sector are not working as well as they did’: how can governments become more responsive to citizen needs?

The global economic picture

At the start of this year, the warning lights on the global economic dashboard were flashing red, with the World Bank now forecasts that the global economy is projected to grow by just 1.7% in 2023. However, the outlook has since improved, with the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects analysis, published last month, now projecting global growth of 2.1% in 2023. However, this would still be lower than the 3.1% growth rate in 2022.

Publishing the latest forecast, Indermit Gill, the World Bank Group’s chief economist and senior vice president says that “the world economy is in a precarious position”, adding: “Outside of east and south Asia, it is a long way from the dynamism needed to eliminate poverty, counter climate change, and replenish human capital. In 2023, trade will grow at less than a third of its pace in the years before the pandemic. In emerging markets and developing economies, debt pressures are growing due to higher interest rates.”

He added that fiscal weaknesses have already tipped many low-income countries into debt distress, while the financing needed to achieve sustainable development will demand further investment.

Similarly, the International Monetary Fund has recently written about how governments should use fiscal policy to promote economic stability and address risks to public finances.

Researchers highlight that following exceptional pandemic support, governments now need to foster disinflation and financial stability while protecting the most vulnerable and safeguarding public finances.

In an article published in April, IMF researchers say that in the three years since the outbreak of the pandemic, fiscal policy has moved a long way toward normalisation. Governments have withdrawn exceptional fiscal support, and deficits are falling from record levels.

However, this is happening amid those lower growth projections, alongside high inflation and rising borrowing costs.

This is creating acute pressures in government alongside increasing demand for services in many countries due to ageing populations.

Michael Wernick, the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa, and Canada’s former cabinet secretary, has told Global Government Forum that many governments are “now in a period of tapping the brakes” on spending. In Canada, he says a long cycle of growth and expansion is coming abruptly to an end and there is already in to downsizing of operational budgets over the next few years, and there could be much more dramatic spending reviews in the very near future.

So driving value for money is going to be more crucial than ever. In the UK, chancellor Jeremy Hunt has launched a public sector efficiency drive, with the aim to match the annual efficiency improvement – which currently stands at 1.6% – to the forecast growth of public spending, which is around 2% a year. Artificial intelligence is part of this efficiency drive, but governments will need to work to both develop any efficiency plans and then implement it across the whole of a government.

Read more: Sustainability and digital transformation ‘complete game changers’, says Morocco government finance chief

Net zero, resilience and sustainability

There’s increasing urgency around the drive to net zero. At the Bonn Climate Change Conference, UN Climate Change executive secretary Simon Stiell said that it is easy to believe we are far apart on many issues on how to make progress on getting to net zero, but he also said “there are bridges that can be built to realize the common ground we know exists”.

At the Bonn meeting, progress was made on issues of critical importance, including the global stocktake, climate finance, loss and damage, and adaptation, among many others.

Stiell singled out the global stocktake – which will conclude at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 30 November to 12 December – as a moment to course correct to get the world on track to limiting the temperature rise in line with the Paris Agreement.

Read more: Citizens sue EU governments over failure to deliver on climate change pledges

The Bonn conference agreed the rules for this first global stocktake of climate action, which Stiell said was key to laying the ground for more ambitious climate action.

National pledges by governments and their implementation are “far from enough” to meet the target of keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. “So, the response to the stocktake will determine our success – the success of COP28, and far more importantly, success in stabilising our climate,” he said.

With governments seemingly falling behind on implementation of their plans to reach net zero – with many governments setting a target to reach it by 2050 – there’s a need to look at how to structure government to deliver.

To learn all this and more, you can watch the full Global Government Forum webinar From AI to net zero: find out what governments are focusing on now webinar on our dedicated events page. The webinar, hosted by Global Government Forum, was held on 28 June 2023.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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