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June 24, 2023updated 26 Jun 2023 10:14am

AI ‘could replace two-thirds of civil service jobs’ in next 15 years

A former government HR chief has advised trade unions and ministers to start discussions now on the impact of AI replacing frontline workers.

By Sophia Waterfield

Artificial intelligence is likely to have a big impact on the number of civil servants working in the UK, with two-thirds of roles under threat, a former government HR chief has warned. Rupert McNeil, who was the Civil Service’s chief human resources officer (CHRO) for six years, has told MPs that departments will need to manage the implementation of automated systems carefully, and highlighted the government’s lack of risk management and governance, as well as weaknesses in programme management.

AI and automation will replace front-line staff in the civil service. (Photo by pxl.store/Shutterstock.com)

McNeil was speaking to MPs on Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee as part of a hearing considering recruitment issues and bullying within the Civil Service.

While plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs were scrapped by Rishi Sunak in November 2022, McNeil said that de-duplication of roles was still something he believed in. He also warned that trade unions, ministers and civil service senior management have to form closer relationships because of the inevitable reductiins of jobs over AI implementation.

McNeil also talked about the weaknesses in senior management, citing a lack of specialist skills across the Civil Service, and said that the organisation should be able to grow its own talent rather than relying on the private sector. McNeil joined the Civil Service as CHRO in 2016 following his time at Lloyds Banking Group, and held the role until 2022. He was also director general for government shared services

He was responsible for the delivery of the Civil Service People Strategy, looking at what it needed to do to attract the most capable and public-spirited people, and focused on new ways of working and how to build a good culture within the Civil Service.

During his tenure, the former CHRO said he noticed that there was competition between departments when it came to the IT workforce.

Frontline work in the Civil Service needs to be automated

McNeil commented that the digital transformation of the economy means it is inevitable that some frontline Civil Service work would be automated, pointing to industries such as banking where technology is replacing many administrative and customer-facing roles.

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“[You’d have] a high skill, high capability team further up,” he explained. “Not necessarily the people right at the top of the organisation, but the people in the managerial layer.” McNeil said that he believes that by the mid to late 2030s, there should only be 150,000 people within the civil service; it currently sits around half-million, with the majority working for The Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry for Justice, HM Revenue & Customs, Ministry of Defence and the Home Office.

Because of this, McNeil said he wanted to see a closer relationship between the civil services trade unions and ministers and their management: “I think that’s the way some very tricky issues will need to be faced over the next two decades will be best addressed,” he said. “Something I certainly said when I left [was to] start having these conversations now about the inevitable workforce reductions that will be necessary because of AI.”

Churn in Civil Service tech teams leads to project delays

Another question posed to McNeill was about the churn experienced within the Civil Service, which he confirmed was a major cause of project delays. One of the causes of this, he said, is that the system does not incentivise people to stay in their jobs.

He pointed to an issue he saw during his time in the post where there was departmental competition for a “small but critical” IT skillset between HMRC and DWP, with the departments offering pay rises to in-demand staff. “The way we addressed that was to say we’re going to have a common set of conditions,” he explained. “We couldn’t change HMRC salary scales to DWP salary scales, but we could top them up to the same level with a special allowance.

“And the way we encouraged the payment from the Treasury was that we got rid of contract labour which is one of the things used to respond to churn,” he added. “You could reinvest the savings from that into these allowances and the business cases that started to increase and it was very effective as a way of dealing with [churn].”

There needs to be a ‘risk management function’ in government

McNeil told the committee that the government and the civil service were not prepared for 21st-century challenges and disasters and one of the reasons for this was because of a lack of risk management for ‘domestic’ departments.

“If you look at what you have on the national security and defence side – from the Joint Intelligence Committee to its intelligence assessment capabilities – that is not replicated in any way on the domestic side,” said McNeil. “So when you have an issue like Covid-19 or Brexit, which are predominantly domestic issues, you see that problem and you don’t have the maturity of coordination.”

When asked whether the Cabinet Office is sufficiently empowered to achieve change across government, the former CHRO said that it lacked some “fundamental tools” including managing risk in a meaningful way and having a compliance function. He also commented, while improved during Brexit and Covid-19, programme management within the civil service was not adequate.

Read more: DWP replaces cybersecurity system that relied on Excel spreadsheets

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