What will the ‘rise of the robots’ mean for public sector jobs?

The potential for job losses due to advances in technology is not a new phenomenon. Many will recall from school days learning about the Luddites in the first Industrial Revolution. But while many advances in the past have replaced muscle power, the new wave of smart technology has the potential to replace brain power too. So what impact will this have on public sector jobs and productivity?

As we know from our work with Demos, the way in which jobs are designed, and the supporting learning and development, have significant impacts on public service productivity. This is where new technology will have its greatest impact - changing the nature of tasks, if not entire occupational areas. Indeed, PwC's Digital IQ Survey 2017 highlights that the Internet of Things, followed by AI and robotics, are seen by public sector respondents as both the most disruptive technologies and also the most important for cutting costs.

Analysis in PwC’s latest UK Economic Outlook report demonstrates the scale of impact: up to 30% of existing UK jobs could potentially be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s. Public administration and defence appear to be among the areas facing highest potential for automation (using a machine learning algorithm for identifying automation potential). Other jobs which require greater social and literacy skills as well as higher level qualifications, like education and healthcare, appear at lower risk of automation (see Figure below).

UKEO0317 employment share by sector

‘Smart automation’ – the combination of AI, robotics and other digital technologies - is already producing innovations relevant to the public sector such as healthcare robots in countries like Japan. This might even suggest that some of these model estimates could prove too low as this technology develops further and spreads to the UK.

Of course, in practice not all of these jobs may actually be automated for a variety of economic, legal and regulatory reasons. Indeed, new automation technologies in areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics will both create some totally new jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of both new and existing kinds, primarily in services sectors that are less easy to automate (including education and care).

New technology may also complement, rather than replace, human workers, offering the potential to deliver better public services for less. For instance, surgeons may be able to conduct operations remotely now using digitally controlled robotics, but (at least for now) we are some way from robot surgeons carrying out operations unaided.

Nevertheless, there are important consequences for the public sector. To start with there is the challenge of enabling tech companies, often SMEs and digital entrepreneurs, as well as their funders to bring smart automation deeper into the public sector. We know from our own research on Gov.Tech that this offers the potential to power the transformation of public services but needs a receptive public sector environment (culture and skills), access to finance and open standards as well as safeguards around privacy.

Then there is the need to help workers adjust as smart automation progressively enters the workplace. Government, working with employers and education providers, needs to invest more in the types of education and training that will be most useful to people in this increasingly automated world. Exactly how to identify the skills that will be required and develop the training is much more complex of course – for many people, this will involve an increased focus on vocational training that is constantly updated to stay one step ahead of the machines.

Finally, there will need to be better matching of workers to the new opportunities that will arise in an increasingly digital economy. This will be helped by bringing together university research centres, science parks and business, working with local and devolved government to deliver smart automation as an essential ingredient of a place-based industrial strategy.

Tina Hallett | Government and Public Sector Lead Partner
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John Hawksworth | Chief Economist
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