Opportunity knocks: key considerations for governments’ adoption of AI in 2024

By on 29/01/2024 | Updated on 29/01/2024
Image by kiquebg via Pixabay

Governments around the world are increasingly looking to adopt artificial intelligence in a bid to streamline their own operations and improve services for citizens. But investing in such technology carries with it risks as well as rewards. Jennifer Robinson, global public sector strategic advisor at SAS, outlines the key considerations, touching on data governance, digital sovereignty, and the deployment of IoT

When you think of artificial intelligence, do you feel conflicted? Perhaps you have U2’s refrain ringing in your ears, “I can’t live; with or without you”. The release of the free-to-use ChatGPT and associated media coverage meant those of us who weren’t already familiar with AI became aware of the opportunities and risks it brings. It’s both exciting and scary. It could significantly improve our lives, yet naysayers argue it has the potential to bring our world to an end.  

Once regarded as technology that only the most sophisticated government departments were using, AI and Generative AI (a branch of AI in which systems create new content) is now being adopted by national, regional, and municipal governments of all sizes.

We enter 2024 with a general acknowledgement that data analytics, AI and Generative AI (GenAI) are game changing tools for the public sector. But what is happening across the globe in regard to governments’ use of these technologies? And how should they ensure it is used safely and responsibly? Here, we set out 10 steps and considerations for governments as they embrace this transformative technology.

Embarking on AI

The uptake of AI and GenAI will vary from government to government. Many are already using or exploring the use of chatbots to facilitate communication with citizens and stakeholders. In the coming year, governments will be exploring how to use machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, synthetic data, and digital twins.

However, the responsibility that governments have to maintain safety and security will lead to a slower adoption of AI and GenAI than in the private sector. Many governments are passing policies and regulations to govern the use of AI within their organisations and jurisdictions.

As a government leader, you have a lot to do to ready your organisation for AI. First and foremost: take time to understand the different branches of AI and what capabilities they bring. 

Getting data in order

Data analytics, AI and GenAI offer great opportunities for governments to increase effectiveness, drive efficiencies, and improve the quality of the services they provide. But, before these technologies can be deployed, data must be assembled, reconciled, and cleaned. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many government leaders recognised the critical role a strong data foundation plays in resiliency, and in being able to nimbly use data to support decision-making as conditions change. Now, as the pandemic fades and AI and GenAI draw our attention, having a strong data foundation is being considered as a prerequisite for deploying these transformative technologies.

Organisations are recognising the necessity of governance and are committed to undergoing data and AI governance exercises.

If you have not already done so, create a data governance committee within your organisation and begin the process of establishing a data governance policy or standards. This will facilitate inter-departmental data-sharing which will exponentially increase the value of your data.

Integrating data across your organisation can be challenging. Data tools with AI embedded into data ingestion, data cleansing, and entity resolution processes will facilitate and speed up data integration. Consider using data management tools that are part of an analytics platform to ease the process of moving from data ingestion to data analysis.

Ensuring trustworthy stewardship

Trust in governments remains low around the world. In many countries, distrust was exacerbated during the pandemic as citizens questioned political leaders’ decisions and the decision-making process. That distrust has been perpetuated as countries become more polarised, with political divisions, uncertain economic conditions, disinformation, climate change, and geopolitical issues all playing a part.

The digitisation and automation of government risks trust deteriorating further as people question the ethical and responsible use of powerful technologies and whether their governments can keep them safe from malicious actors, for example. Concerns about cyberattacks, misuse of data, national security and powerful AI are driving governments to increase requirements for compliance and pass regulations governing hosting, data, and software.

As a government leader, you must consider how you are going to keep your organisation, its employees, and the people you serve safe from the risks involved with using data and AI. Establish policies governing the use of AI and GenAI – it’s worth learning from other governments that have already implemented such polices – and pursue practices that accomplish them. Make sure that your vendors have technology in place to back up claims that they provide “responsible AI” – some vendors talk big about this but can’t deliver.

Strengthening digital sovereignty

Governments are deploying protective mechanisms for the critical physical and digital assets they rely on. This pursuit of “digital sovereignty” has been precipitated by a growing mistrust between nations, concerns about the supply chain, and fears about the flow of citizens’ data.

Digital sovereignty is largely rooted in protecting how and where data is stored and accessed. As governments shore up control over their technology and services, they are introducing digital sovereignty laws of varying scope on account of concerns about cybersecurity, data privacy and sensitivity, and cyber capabilities. These laws can include broad restrictions on cross-border data transfer or local content requirements for digital-related services. 

Self-reliance can be challenging for governments when contractors and vendors are used. When working with technology vendors, make sure that any of your organisation’s data used in their systems – or any data derived from the use of your organisation’s data – remains the property of your organisation.

Increasing the Open Source footprint

Open source software (OSS) is used broadly by people working in the public sector. The use of OSS enables them to be less dependent on private companies for software maintenance and provides increased visibility and detection of cybersecurity threats. This visibility provides for transparency and promotes trust. Governments and citizens can utilize OSS to help achieve digital sovereignty.

While OSS is generally praised for promoting interoperability between different systems and platforms, it can create challenges when integrating with legacy systems. In addition, as the number of analytic, AI and Generative AI models is increasing rapidly, some organisations are finding that they have trouble moving models into production and then maintaining them. This challenge is enhanced by the fact that many IT shops have people writing software code in various languages. Technically, OSS is “free”, but many governments are grappling with the costs associated with long-term maintenance of OSS code as well as the legal requirements for using OSS software.

If your organisation relies on a team of OSS developers, consider adopting an analytics platform that enables OSS developers to bring their models into production with greater ease. An analytics platform can help manage model inventory, monitor model effectiveness, centralise analytics governance, and enable real-time decisioning. Not only will this make it easier for analytic models to be run, but it will also increase the number of models that can go into production and make those models more trustworthy.

Engaging citizens

Accustomed to the convenience of online services provided by the private sector, citizens have increased expectations for their public sector interactions  and demand they be reliable, transparent, easy, and accurate. But this is difficult for governments to deliver when their data about citizens is disbursed across departments in siloed systems and is often embedded in prose such as reports, surveys, and citizen correspondence.   

The enterprise-wide data sharing and governance mentioned earlier is foundational for governments working to improve citizen services or to create digital IDs or digital wallets.

Governments’ ability to provide better citizen experiences got a big boost this year with the advent of GenAI. One of the branches of GenAI, Large Language Models (LLMs), scales the human acts of reading, organising, quantifying, and generating free form text. This is huge for governments which have thousands of reports, communications, surveys, citizen enquiries and other documents that, until recently, required a human to make sense of them. Using AI and LLMs, governments can synthesise the information stored in documents and communicate insights to decision-makers, staff members, stakeholders and citizens.

Governments are exploring how GenAI can be deployed to improve chatbots, equip government workers to find answers quickly, and open stores of government data for exploration by citizens.

Excellent digital engagement with citizens involves the integration and reconciliation of data from across the enterprise, sophisticated analytics, visualisations, and real language explanations. While some vendors specialise in various elements, the process will be easier if using a data analytics platform that can perform all of these tasks, interpreting data into insights and providing that information in real time.

Capturing real insights in real-time

Having real-time insights is the objective for many government organisations, whether these insights are from dynamic data sharing, the use of AI and Generative AI, or streaming data from the Internet of Things (IoT), or a combination of the three. 

AI and Generative AI technology comes to us as the IoT matures, providing new and copious data. IoT is the network of data collection devices (such as sensors and meters), communication technology, and analytics that turns data points into actionable information. The IoT network continues to mature as more devices are connected. At the beginning of 2024, there are approximately 15.1bn connected IoT devices. The expectation is that the number of IoT devices will nearly double to over 29bn by 2030. These devices continually collect and communicate data, referred to as “streaming data”.

Governments are embarking on IoT projects to oversee maintenance, to predict and prevent floods, to relieve congestion, to track water quality, improve public safety, bolster national security, and to enhance citizen experiences, among other things.

This utilisation of streaming data will be enhanced by GenAI which will enable governments to build dynamic, virtual models of systems or environments (referred to as Digital Twins) or provide up-to-the-second information to employees and citizens. With these technologies, governments will cut down on the lag time to retrieve, process, and communicate information.

If your organisation is responsible for matters in which timely information is critical – such as flooding or traffic – consider deploying IoT solutions. IoT projects require multiple technologies, and therefore multiple vendors. To overcome this adoption challenge, work with vendors that have established a partnership to deliver the full IoT solution from data collection to data insights.

Addressing workforce gaps

The world is facing a major labour shortage created by declining populations, a slowing working-age population, and a decrease in net-immigration to developed countries.

Governments are particularly plagued with low employment as a record number of employees retire or leave the public sector. In particular, governments do not have enough IT workers, teachers, public safety or health workers. This exodus from government jobs is occurring at a time when many governments are growing in scope. The expansion of social programmes, new capital projects and new laws are requiring more work to be done.

On one hand, the labour and skills shortage problem is aided by the advancement of technology. On the other hand, this shortage stymies the adoption of AI, Generative AI and IoT.

If your organisation seeks to supplement your workforce with new technologies and is hunting for IT workers, consider acquiring a low-code/no-code analytics platform that enables non-technical people to run analytics without having training in data science. Low-code/no-code data analytics tools make the ingestion, cleaning, reconciliation and analysis of data easier to perform. 

Tackling investigative workloads

Fraud and financial crime continue to be a top priority as digitalisation continues and fraudsters test new points of penetration. As a result, investigators’ workloads are increasing, making the deployment of analytic tools even more necessary. 

The benefit of using analytics for investigations has often been described as “finding a needle in a haystack”. With the exponential growth of fraud and proliferation of internet crimes, governments have millions of haystacks. Analytics is no longer praised just for identifying criminals and crimes, but for substantially reducing workloads and backlogs of government workers who have too many cases to investigate. This is particularly valuable at a time when governments are struggling with retention of employees, short staffs, and hiring.

Given the growing volume of financial crimes and cybercrimes worldwide  – and the techniques used to evade their detection becoming ever more sophisticated – governments must be armed with equally sophisticated tools to identify and stem crimes. Advanced analytics and AI investigative tools identify patterns and trends in data that signal the presence of foul play.

The investigative process is being further aided by GenAI “digital assistants” which provide guidance to investigators by identifying discrepancies in testimonies and other points of interest that are worthwhile investigating.

If your organisation handles investigations of any kind, consider adopting analytics and AI solutions.  But, make sure that the solution you use embeds trustworthy practices into the AI so that you protect the innocent while tracking down the guilty.

Raising the ESG bar

Record-breaking heat, floods, storms, drought and wildfires are devastating communities around the world as the global temperature continues to rise. At the same time, social and corporate practices have driven slave labour and human trafficking to the highest level in history. The rise of AI carries with it concerns about its impact on the safety and wellbeing of people.

Governments and educational institutions are taking on the responsibility of their own environmental, social and governance practices as well as those of its stakeholders. Governments are implementing regulations, requiring reporting, creating programmes, and disbursing funds to protect the Earth and at-risk humans. 

If you are establishing compliance standards for your organisation or your stakeholders, AI can be deployed to ensure that the goals and requirements are being met. In the same way that AI can be used to tackle fraud and crimes, it can be used to identify environmental and social non-compliance as well as forecast changing conditions and to understand the implications of new policies or practices.

If there is one word to describe the use of AI in government in 2024, it might be “opportunity”.  But the opportunity before us must be exercised cautiously to mitigate risks. Having a working knowledge of new technologies, putting standards and policies in place, and working with trustworthy vendors will be critical for success.

Click here to register for the SAS Top 10 Trends for Government 2024 webinar, taking place on 30 January 2024.

Governments across the globe are taking action to provide security, improve service delivery, and increase citizen trust. During the live session, special guests will discuss the 10 public sector trends that will influence the performance of governments and the wellbeing of their citizens.

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