AI key to ‘transform productivity’ of the civil service, says UK’s deputy PM

By on 09/01/2024 | Updated on 09/01/2024
Image courtesy: Government Digital Service

The UK’s deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden stressed the civil service’s role in harnessing the power of artificial intelligence as Whitehall prepares to apply the technology to government operations and public services.

In a speech to a government training conference on programming, AI and data science in late December, Dowden said that making the best use of AI in government would allow officials who feel “stifled by systems” or “bogged down by bureaucracy” to get on with their work.

“As well as the huge risks AI poses, there are also enormous opportunities – particularly for us in the public sector to transform productivity,” he said.

“Some public servants waste a whole working day each week on admin. I’ve worked in government for many years, and I know the frustrations.”

Applying AI technologies to routine tasks would restore productivity gains to the public sector and result in taxpayer savings “estimated to be worth billions,” he said.

“We have the big data. We have the large workforce. We have the finest minds and the keenest beans and a government which is one hundred per cent behind this.”

Read more: Young tech talent’s lack of ‘familiarity’ with government more of an issue than trust, Alex Chisholm says

The incubation phase

Dowden signposted government’s plans to advance AI innovation, which included the Incubator for AI unit whose remit is to support the use of AI across the civil service and to help shrink the government workforce to pre-2016 levels.

The unit is expected to be staffed by up to 30 people and has had £5m (US$6.2m) allocated to it.

Dowden said in November last year that the incubator would “enhance the pace of technology”, helping government to “deliver better outcomes with fewer inputs”.

He described it as government’s effort to get “a crack squad that is going to go out there and actually bring a high level of expertise to try and identify innovative solutions to projects”.

During his speech last month, Dowden addressed both civil service job security and citizens’ experience of digital public services. “I don’t mean replacing real people with robots or adding to the frustrations of dealing with the government. I mean removing the things that annoy people most in their dealings with officialdom – namely the time it takes to do things quickly,” he said.

He acknowledged that the government “has not been the fastest adopter” of innovation in the past but highlighted that the UK civil service was primed to take advantage of the opportunities, pointing to the latest Government AI Readiness Index, in which the UK ranked third among 193 countries.

The annual index scores countries out of 100 based on three pillars: governments’ internal digital capacities and strategic visions for developing and governing AI; the maturity of the supply of AI tools to each country’s technology sector; and the quality of their data and infrastructure. The UK scored 78.57, putting it in third place behind Singapore (81.97) and the United States (84.80).

Read more: UK government aims to tackle public service administration burden

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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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