How artificial intelligence can unlock ‘frictionless’ government

By on 14/03/2024 | Updated on 14/03/2024
Photo by Google DeepMind from Pexels

John Abel, director in the Office of the CTO at Google Cloud sets out how artificial intelligence and technology can remove toil from the work of civil servants – and how government can make progress on implementation

The workloads faced across government are increasing. Demand is growing, as are expectations from users, who want public services that match the quality of digital services they use online.

John Abel

In order to meet this challenge, government needs better/more sophisticated technologies. In many ways, the use of technology in transforming government services is in its early stages, but by embracing emerging developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), “frictionless government” can be achieved, says John Abel, director in the Office of the CTO, Google Cloud.

“This is what we all want as citizens,” he says. “We don’t want to spend more time than we need interacting with government, working around the frictions. Moreover, government don’t want citizens squandering valuable time in the friction of government”.

Increasing productivity and improving service delivery is a priority of governments around the world, and Abel says technology can help better citizens when they interact with government, enabling the public and public sector workers to focus on more engaging and complex tasks. “Technology is very good at industrialisation, what people are very good at is creativity and problem-solving,” Abel notes.

Industrialising transactional work across government through cutting edge technologies, such as AI, can help remove what he calls the “toil” from the work of government, keeping a human centric approach by ensuring civil servants are working on the higher value, insight-based work, and benefiting from simplified processes and more sophisticated interfaces driving greater public and government satisfaction.

On the front line of the public sector, teachers, doctors, police officers, nurses and others will be able to spend more time directly serving the public and less time on administration. We know that these people want more opportunities to do the parts of the job they love.

“AI and technology is good at fixing things that have been fixed before, because it has the experience of knowledge of how to repetitively do it,” says Abel. So routine government processes can be completed with technology, freeing up civil servants to provide better service on more complex cases.

How the public sector is using AI now – and what the future holds

Even in the early stages of AI use, many government departments and agencies are realising these benefits. Common use cases for AI in government include automation of data entry, form filling, and report generation work that has traditionally taken up a lot of civil service capacity.

Generative AI can also be used to route calls to the correct department, and schedule appointments and citizen payments – small innovations that, across organisations the size of government departments, could provide significant productivity improvements.

Other common AI applications in government include generating text, such as news articles, blog posts, and marketing materials, saving governments time and money on content creation around policies, while translation services can be used to provide government information in more languages.

More bespoke examples include the work Google Cloud continues to deliver with the Department for Transport, helping it utilise data to better support data insights to power transport policy and planning across the nation. Researchers at UCL and Moorfields Eye Hospital are harnessing AI to identify sight-threatening eye diseases and predict general health outcomes, including heart attacks, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. Most recently, Google Cloud signed a memorandum of understanding with Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to help accelerate the adoption of cloud technologies and AI to ensure our security and safeguard prosperity.

All of these are just initial examples of where AI can deliver across government, says Abel, and the overall potential is vast. AI offers the opportunity to revolutionise the way that governments operate by automating tasks, improving efficiency, and providing insights to the extent that government services can be made to better serve citizens.

“What we can do is bring Google magic of our citizen level products like YouTube, Maps, Search – to enhance how citizens interact with government in an increasingly frictionless way, and also help public sector workers to do what they’re brilliant at. That’s what we really want to get to.”

Unlocking the benefits of AI in government

How then, can these benefits for public servants – and for citizens – be unlocked?

Abel says that, primarily, this requires AI to be made accessible across the public sector. “It is time to de-geek,” as he puts it.

“The most valuable person in the business in this era of technology is the person that knows the business – and that’s no different in government,” he says. “The people who have been there, helping citizens through the various challenges of life, are the people that really need to know the technology.”

Abel, who will be speaking at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2024 conference on how to get the public sector ready for AI, sets out a number of things that government needs to make this happen: a clear strategy; adequate resources; technical expertise; and a plan for managing the ethical implications.

And individual government departments and agencies can learn from the characteristics of organisations that have begun to make the most of AI.

“One, they’ve started with internal work, not external, because the biggest value is connecting within the business or organisation,” Abel says, again stressing the importance of empowering the frontline. “Two, they’ve clearly communicated the early stages of success and failure so people know what’s going on, and don’t see this as a thing hidden away in the corner of the office that some very clever people are doing, but everyone else is not sure of. And three, they’ve targeted small aspects of toil or scale that they struggle with, and focused on it to learn from it.”

This means embracing experimentation and working fast once decisions have been taken to explore AI’s use.

“Let people know the project, connect with the technology and experiment and learn,” is his advice on how to empower civil servants with AI.

“Government has certainly got the problems to solve, but they’ve got the knowledge experts and they’ve got the opportunities to release that talent,” Abel concludes. “Those that are going to be successful will use technology to embrace removing toil and friction and embracing technology to deliver services at scale.”

John Abel, director in the Office of the CTO at Google Cloud will be speaking in the ‘How to get the public sector ready for AI’ session at Innovation 2024 on Tuesday 19 March at 16:10. Register now to attend Innovation 2024.

Further reading here: Google Cloud: Public Sector Guide to Getting Started with AI

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