• Robots and computers could replace 250,000 public sector jobs by 2030

  • 6 Feb 2017
  • Comments 5 comments

Think tank says few complex roles will be able to resist automation, as it calls for ‘new approach’ to workforce design

Around a quarter of a million jobs in the public sector could be replaced by computers and robots in the next 15 years, research from think tank Reform has found.

The study revealed that using websites and artificially intelligent ‘chat bots’ could improve efficiency in workplaces and save billions of pounds. Reform argues that employers and employees in the public sector should embrace ‘gig economy’ style contingent working as an alternative to using agency workers in hospitals and schools, and to help meet seasonal demand for workers, such as HMRC’s increase in workflow at the end of the tax year.

It has also revealed that technology such as robots and computers is capable of removing the need for some 130,000 Whitehall administrators – around 90 per cent of the total administrative workforce – by 2030. This could save £2.6bn a year in payroll costs.

Alexander Hitchcock, co-author of the report, said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively. But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”

Reform said a further 90,000 NHS administrative and 24,000 GP receptionist jobs could be automated in the same way, saving an additional £1.7bn. The changes could also affect around a third of nursing tasks, such as distributing non-intravenous medication and information collection.

Even doctors’ roles could even be affected by the introduction of more sophisticated technology; the report emphasised that machines are already proving more effective at diagnosing lung cancer and performing routine surgery procedures.

The report, which is based on evaluations of recent government approaches to workforce design, as well as expert interviews and analysis of public and private data, concluded that a new approach to working is needed because “public services should deliver outcomes that matter to users, and meet expectations of interacting via technology”.

Few complex roles, it suggested, will be capable of resisting the move towards automation, with the aim that public services will eventually become “diamond shaped”, with both frontline and strategic roles replaced by computers. It recommended that workplaces vary their internal hierarchies so there are fewer management layers, and begin introducing new recruitment patterns, including targeting non-traditional entry routes such as apprenticeships and digital contingent-labour platforms, to attract a wider skill base into their workforces.

Chas Moloney, director of Ricoh UK, said employers and workers who may be affected by this “rising tide of technology” should focus on skills development and training for employees adapting to these newer ways of working.

“There can be no complacency when it comes to improving the digital dexterity of the workforce,” he said. “It’s vital that every effort is made to ensure workers are equipped with the necessary skills to thrive in new digital working environments. Change brings with it seismic shifts to workplace culture, with digitisation and automation becoming core elements of public sector operations.”

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  • There is no doubt technology can improve the access to services and the delivery of some services. What is definitely in doubt is whether government can design any system capable of being delivered 'virtually' in a sustainable manner; whether it can be done economically, i.e. saving 250k jobs but at a cost of 10x or 100x the original value with less adaptability. I can't remember any report of an IT consultancy suffering any loss even after the public purse has been raided for £Ms for failed IT projects over the years. Government (i.e. the tax payer) carries all the risk even though contract costs include a risk factor.

    The only reason many of these projects are funded in the first place is that the true, complete life-cycle costs are not required to be budgeted. It is interesting to note that in the history of innovations such as are proposed here, the decision makers are never at risk of losing their own jobs.

    Consider the case of a company that employed a junior accounts clerk to monitor expenses claims. It was found that the amount saved on expenses claims in a year was less than the 'on-costs' of the clerk and the post was made redundant. Several years later, an audit of expenses found excessive expenses claims far exceeded the cost of a monitoring clerk. Of course an IT solution could have been introduced (simply and cheaply in this case) but human ingenuity can still be guaranteed to circumvent the intent of most virtual systems, even when you spend a lot of money on them.

    The concept of 'added value' would appear to be missing in designing systems where a 'high cost' manager has to do 'low value' work because a clerk is not available. If managerial salaries were reduced to assure the overall increase in productivity then there would be a case for the investment. It will only be another year or two before drones (the flying variety) will be sufficiently robust to carry pigs. Until then the only flying pigs you see will still be as likely as increases in managerial productivity.

    HR can play a part in requiring robust justification for adding posts to an organisation at whatever level and making sure all posts remain relevant. Technology is far more capable of removing the need for the middle and higher level skills in a business at relatively higher cost/benefit returns but, as mentioned above, this option is not likely to be considered if only because there is a difference between a system supporting a human decision maker and making the decision in the first place. Just think what would have happened in 2008 if the machines were in control of financial markets - oh, they were?

  • Yes, technology is important, but is it really progress to replace so many people with robots/computers?

    Who benefits from these changes? Is it really better to interact with machines rather than humans?

  • I agree that it's important to embrace technology if it improves services and delivers better outputs but what about taxes. Will robots and computers pay taxes for the upkeep of the country and keep the NHS running? I suppose not but employed people do pay taxes and NIC's . What's the point of improving services if no one can afford to use these improved services? Money for services comes from taxes; not from thin air.

    Employed people also spend money; they are consumer's. Consumers are vital to the economy. Robots and computers are not consumers. I don't think that the analysis of the possible benefits or pitcalls have been completely thoght through.

  • This is a great testament to the evolution of technology, but I do wonder whether sometimes we sound look at things differently. Our way of working has become so driven by technology that we seem to be swept along with the tide of making these technological changes for greater efficiency, cost (money) saving and 'because we can'. When do we stop to consider the social and human cost of this constant drive for automation? We are facing times where we are still recognising the value of work to our mental health and wellbeing, and what that work should look like to be of maximum benefit, and yet we are stripping jobs away, making the jobs that are left less human-friendly. Am I naiive to ask when will we stop making every decision based on more 'efficient' processes (as defined by quicker, more uniform/standardised, more financially cost effective) and start putting the 'human' back into HR, considering the whole 'cost' of these measures, and viewing efficiency as part of the picture? And shouldn't we remember too that we should be in the driving seat of how, when and even if we use technology, not the other way around: just because the technology is available and we can do it, doesn't mean we have to, or even that we should?

  • ....and an even higher number of jobs in the private sector?