Elysium is a big star sci-fi action movie from 2013, which even its director admitted was pretty mediocre. But in among the one-dimensional characters and gore-filled explosions there is one short scene that stands out. Sent to see his parole officer, the petty criminal played by Matt Damon is confronted by a decrepit ventriloquist’s dummy powered by some deeply unempathetic artificial intelligence. Sensing hostility, the dummy asks if Damon’s character would prefer to speak to a human. It’s an offer that our hero hastily turns down, clearly aware that such an escalation would not end well.
Elysium may be set in 2154 but the sort of technology it envisions is barely a few years away. A recent study found that the so-called Govtech market in the UK is already worth £6.6bn and predicted that it could reach £20bn within the next decade.
It is not at all far-fetched to imagine a public sector completely transformed by Govtech over the next ten to 20 years. It would be one where the great majority of back office functions were conducted by machines with the capacity to consistently and continuously improve their administrative skill. Queries from service users would be dealt with via webchat in which the respondents were computers powered by AI. A network of tens of thousands of sensors placed in every asset from kettles to MRI scanners would provide a constant flow of information allowing early identification of problems and a more targeted approach to service delivery. Logistical issues such as stock control and delivery would be managed by warehouse drones and driverless vehicles while a panoply of facilities management tasks such as cleaning, maintenance and repair could be handled by robots. Even very highly skilled jobs and those that seem to require human interaction – such as surgery or homecare – look likely to be increasingly augmented or even largely delivered by robots within the next 20 years.
The benefits that this technological revolution in the public sector could bring are potentially enormous. One analysis found that automating functions such as handling applications for welfare benefits cut the labour hours spent on such tasks by 25%. Another study found that £17bn could be saved annually in public sector wages by 2030 compared to 2015.
Such radical change never comes without its downside, though. The impact this technological revolution could have on the humanity of the delivery of our public services is clear. But there are other serious concerns. Most notably, one report has suggested that 861,000 public sector jobs could be lost to automation by 2030. It is possible, as many contend, that over time new jobs will be created to replace them. But that phrase ‘over time’ potentially conceals a deep pool of misery, wasted human capital and broken communities as the economy adapts to an automated public sector.
There is both a moral and a practical case to address these negative consequences now before the Govtech revolution sweeps all before it. The moral case is obvious: throwing tens of thousands of public sector workers on the scrapheap while potentially dehumanising our interaction with citizens should be unacceptable in a civilised society. Practically though it is clear that unless these justifiable fears are addressed, the resistance to Govtech from political decision-makers and the public will grow.
This is why the adoption of Govtech must be explored and planned for now, rather than when change is underway and mistakes are already being made. There are probably few issues confronting our public realm now that would lend themselves so well to a timely independent public inquiry.
Such an inquiry could lead a public debate and create consensus around three key questions: how to speed up the adoption of Govtech; how to make the UK a global leader in the Govtech market; and, most importantly, how to adopt Govtech in an economically responsible, inclusive and ultimately human way. Better to ask these hard questions now rather than unwittingly find ourselves living in a Matt Damon movie. If Elysium is anything to go by, that is a fate we definitely want to avoid.
Adam Lent will be writing further on this topic in Bringing Digital Disruption to Government – to be published soon