Artificial intelligence: the silver bullet the public sector needs?

8 min read | Harry Gooding | Article | | Information technology sector

Artificial intelligence: the silver bullet the public sector needs

Very few innovations have borne witness to the hype generated by artificial intelligence (AI). Generative AI, in particular, has captivated both business leaders and the world at large since Chat GPT entered the arena in late 2022. Its sophistication and apparently boundless promise has created a mood of both excitement and nervousness, and we’re still in the dark as to which of these is likely to be justified in the long-term. 

What we can say for sure is that these new technologies provide an abundance of innovation opportunities for the public sector – if they can be harnessed in the right way. 

It remains imperative for organisations to keep pace with rapidly developing technological advancements and the ever-evolving world of world. However, competition for top tech talent is fierce, as workers with expertise in AI implementation and development, as well as those who can facilitate business transformation projects related to this technology, are in growing demand.


At a glance: how AI can add value to public services

  • Improve service quality
  • Free up time for higher-value activities
  • Engage and attract top talent


Impediments to adoption in public services

The widely publicised belief that AI can be deployed at pace – creating instant productivity gains and cost savings – is at odds with the actual practicalities of implementing it, particularly for a part of the economy as constrained by rigid processes and archaic data-sharing infrastructure as the public sector.

There is – furthermore – a notable lack of the skills and experience needed to tackle a roll out of new AI tools and technologies whilst also keeping existing services running to the standards required. Though there are highly experienced digital transformation experts working in public services, there is limited digital capability in the sector at large, and in turn a small number working at the most senior decision-making level. The success of projects depends on a message that’s clearly defined and for this, senior understanding and buy in – and the ability and willingness to cascade this message across a department or organisation – is vital.


Public scrutiny stalling change

Artificial intelligence presents a wealth of opportunity for leaders in the public sector, but unlike their private sector counterparts, every decision they make and every penny they spend is exposed to the scrutiny of the public. Organisations are ultimately accountable to the society they serve, and this accountability frequently makes change extremely slow to happen. The importance of providing a smooth and efficient service can often create a risk-averse atmosphere where the potential gains of a successful change are outweighed by the possibility of disruption.

Nevertheless, for those willing to take the chance, exploring the adoption of AI in public services has the potential to create a number of improvements:

1. Enhance service quality

The reputation and integrity of public sector organisations depends on their ability to deliver a reliable service and provide accurate information – in a timely fashion – to those requesting it. A potential use case for generative AI in the public sector is the automatic deployment of answers to questions from the public, with a large language model being recently implemented at the Foreign Office contact centre for this very purpose. As a government department, its spikes in service demand are often extremely difficult to predict, and the urgency as well as frequency of queries often reaches extremely high-pressure levels.  

Building a library of answers to the most-frequently asked questions has been just one of the ways in which AI has been utilised to improve the digital service quality provided by the public sector. Despite the attention given to the implementation of generative AI in this particular case, the majority of the time allocated to the project was spent on governance and roll-out, with a commitment to data security and – above all – quality of service as the main priority.

2. Free up time for higher-value activities

One of the oft-cited benefits of AI is that – if deployed correctly and rolled-out thoughtfully – it has the potential to automate time-consuming and repetitive tasks, giving people more time to contribute to the high-value tasks requiring that all-important human element.

Public services staff are far more likely to trust the use of AI tools if they can see the benefits they’re adding, not only to the quality of service, but to the scope of their role. The worry of being supplanted by artificial intelligence is still relatively pervasive, but by ensuring high-quality governance and educating workers on how AI can complement their role, leaders can cultivate a positive learning culture and help embed the new technology more seamlessly. 

Public services staff are far more likely to trust the use of AI tools if they can see the benefits they’re adding, not only to the quality of service, but to the scope of their role.


Of course, an element of caution also needs to be exercised to ensure professionals are sufficiently educated – and also motivated – to extricate the right value from these new tools. Taking what AI systems produce at face value now presents a considerable risk: their output both reflects and perpetuates the school of human thought, which as we know, is open to bias. An equitable framework will need to be put in place from the beginning to ensure that critical thinking remains at the fore, and all-important human judgement is still being applied.

3. Engage and attract top talent

Elements of digital change – especially on the scale required in the public sector – usually require people with a background and experience in various aspects of software and systems delivery. However, these skills are often in short-supply in the public sector, and while initiatives are being rolled out to narrow the gap, employers still struggle to compete with the private sector – particularly when it comes to pay.

The promise of interesting and career-defining projects could go some way to drawing talented and experienced tech professionals away from commercial organisations, and the challenge of implementing AI within the public sector is an overwhelming but potentially exhilarating one. The sheer scale of the challenge and as-yet unrealised impact presents a huge professional incentive for digital practitioners who might be looking for a new test of their skills.

To secure passionate, diverse, and skilled digital experts capable of leveraging the potential of AI within your organisation, find out how you can unlock exceptional talent with Skills and Learning today.


About this author

Harry Gooding, Director, Hays Skills & Learning

Harry is part of Hays Skills & Learning, a new business in the Hays portfolio, supporting our customer network to develop skills development programmes that open up employment opportunities to ‘undiscovered talent’ communities. After beginning his career in recruitment, he then worked in VC backed start-ups and scale-ups for six years across two different portfolios before joining Hays.

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