Opinion: Cornering Public Sector with AI

Steve Witt, Director of Public Services, Nintex

The “Use of Artificial intelligence in government” report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that limited access to good quality data is a significant barrier to implementing AI in the UK’s public sector. Successfully adopting AI and ensuring quality data will be imperative, not optional, for public sector organisations. 

Legacy systems have been a pervasive issue for the public sector and despite progress being made toward digitisation, organisations in this space are often seen as digital laggards. Across the government at least 43 legacy IT Systems are at critical levels of risk of issues or failure. 

Could AI’s promise of transforming productivity be enough to incentivise the public sector and force it to overcome legacy systems? 

Letting Go of the Legacy  

There are many times in life when we must let go of something old to make space for something new. Technology epitomises this sentiment. To make use of the new innovations, we often must first do away with outdated systems that slow the pace of change and productivity.  

Nowhere is this more evident than within the UK’s public sector. Serving millions of individuals, it seems as if it has almost become easier to stick with tried and tested models than evolve with the needs of the people it serves. This will only take us as far as demand continues to proliferate and organisations deal with more complex user cases.  

The government’s 2022-2025 roadmap for digital and data sets out plans to address these issues, and the Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) expects to tackle legacy IT systems with high risk by 2024. But the reality will likely take longer as the UK’s public sector IT infrastructure remains disjointed and inefficient.  

Legacy issues can have significant consequences for the public. Take for example the 2021 DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) scandal where pensioners were underpaid by £2.5 billion due to outdated systems dating back to 1988. 90% of the pensioners were women. Lack of functionality meant employees were reliant on manual processes that impacted the flow and capture of high-quality data which is necessary for modernisation success.  

Failing to modernise systems will hinder the public sector’s ability to adapt and embrace emerging technologies that can transform public sector productivity.  

Taking the Public Sector to the Next Level  

The urgency to update IT systems becomes even more apparent when we consider the ability for AI to drive meaningful change. As a driver of innovation, AI has the capacity to streamline processes, enrich decision-making, and unlock fresh possibilities within the public sector. Studies by the Alan Turing Institute discovered that AI has the potential to automate approximately 84% of repetitive tasks within 200 different government services. 

Yet, fully realising these advantages hinges on having a robust digital infrastructure in place. Without it, even the most innovative AI technologies remain untapped, unable to deliver on the promise to take public services to the next level.  

AI is already being harnessed to tackle a myriad of challenges across the public sector, underscoring the necessity for modernisation. The NAO’s report identified that 37% of government bodies had deployed AI and a further 37% were either piloting or planning AI initiatives.  

The efficacy of AI in advancing digitisation and delivering tangible value in public service is intricately linked to the quality of data and the modernisation of IT systems. This is evident in recent initiatives such as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA) framework to harness AI for driving productivity in public project delivery. The framework emphasises the need to use project data to automate routine tasks, predict future project performance and help make better project decisions. 

The IPA is encouraging experimentation with AI pilots, looking to scale the most successful ones and increase sharing of best practices.  

Quality Over Quantity 

The IPA’s approach is highly commendable, as accelerating digitisation through pilot programmes will ensure long-term success. Many government programs attempting to tackle legacy IT issues boil the ocean. Setting unattainable goals or attempting to modernise too much all at once will result in early failures that can create major setbacks to plans. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Chair’s 8th Annual report, outlining the future spending problems for the Government, highlighted that digital legacy systems are an ongoing challenge due to the Government’s “unachievable programmes” that struggle to deliver tangible results. 

With modernising IT systems, as with all digitisation initiatives, starting small, identifying successful pilot projects, and then scaling is the surest route to success. The sooner public sector organisations realise this, the sooner they can transition from manual or paper-based methods to digital processes tailored to evolving needs, the public sector can create the flexibility needed for AI systems to grow and improve over time. 

Delivering quick wins 

Higher demand for public sector services means organisations need to find ways to deliver quick productivity wins in the short-term while tackling their legacy systems. Making use of technologies such as automation can drive organisation-wide productivity within weeks.  

For instance, AgriFutures Australia automated their research grant process and moved project management to the cloud, reducing contract processing time from four weeks to just 30 minutes. This automation also enhanced access to large data sets, crucial for future AI implementation. 

While government plans to enhance public services through digitization are commendable, outdated systems cannot achieve the necessary productivity improvements. Effective digital and data infrastructures are crucial for leveraging AI’s transformative benefits, where quality data access is indispensable. 

John Ruskin said, “Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.” AI is the ‘intelligent effort’ that is not going anywhere. This is the opportunity for the public sector to jump aboard the innovation train and ride it all the way to customer satisfaction. Or else risk being derailed and left behind.  

Steve Witt
Director of Public Services, Nintex


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