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July 19, 2023updated 20 Jul 2023 11:24am

Will AI adoption and modernising IT systems help the civil service save £100m?

The government also plans to upskill staff, with many civil servants believing a lack of digital expertise is a barrier to progress.

By Sophia Waterfield

Greater use of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation can help the UK’s civil service save £100m over five years, a Cabinet Office minister has said. Jeremy Quin also pledged to boost the service’s tech expertise, and comments follow the publication of research claiming more than half of civil servants believe the biggest barrier to digital transformation is a lack of digital skills.

Jeremy Quin says the civil service can save cash by using AI and automation. (Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

During an event hosted by thank tank Policy Exchange today, Quin announced a number of reforms to the civil service to “turbocharge” the technical skill sets of civil servants and make Whitehall run more efficiently.

“There are brilliant people in our civil service but I know there are many, as can be the case in any organisation, that feel frustrated and stiffed by bureaucracy,” Quin said.

“Alongside the cabinet secretary, I shared with civil service colleagues at Civil Service Live in Cardiff last week that we need every colleague to be calling out waste and inefficiency, [and to be] determined to end the frustrations I know many share.”

In order to do this, the civil service needs to focus more on “specialisation” and having access to “outside voices and fresh ideas”, and remaining in their posts longer and embracing the “digital future”, Quin said.

The minister plans to bring in “digital gurus” from the private sector through secondment programmes starting in autumn. It will begin with a scheme called Digital and Data, which will see the government working with major tech players and FTSE100 companies to exchange talent. Civil servants will be given the chance to spend time working within the private sector.

This echoes the efforts by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which recently announced an Expert Exchange programme to bring in expertise from industry and academia.

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Quin also laid out his ambitions to use AI to “improve public services and boost productivity”. He said that the i.AI unit, a pilot programme responsible for exploring automation and innovation in government, will become a permanent team.

Legacy IT systems will be identified and addressed, with improvements made to systems to create “greater compatibility of technology” between different government departments. The Cabinet Office has said more than £370m of efficiencies were found through the modernisation of older systems.

Modernisation will also be supported by the creation of a ‘Data Marketplace’, which the Cabinet Office says will break down barriers to sharing data inside the government. It also will be available to third parties such as businesses and researchers by 2025 to help “drive innovation in the economy”.

The civil service will do more with fewer, more skilled staff

In this speech at the Policy Exchange, Quin said that the government needed to get better at utilising digital talent within the civil service. This will be achieved, he said, through the launch of a government-wide initiative known as ‘One Big Thing.’

“The focus for 2023 is data-upskilling,” he told attendees. “It will engage every single civil servant – that’s half a million training days on data this autumn. This shows our determination to build knowledge and deliver.”

He also explained that over the next two years, two new digital platforms will be rolled out to enable the civil service and government to “understand, develop and utilise the skills” of the workforce, helping staff move more easily between departments “at pace and without friction”.

Quin said: “Not only will this save money – approximately £100m over the next five years – it means it will be easier to move the people with the right skills and experience to the right roles in government.”

He also announced a cross-government digital apprenticeship programme that would support the recruitment and development of 500 digital, data and technology (DDaT) professionals in the 2023/24 financial year.

As reported by Tech Monitor, in 2022 the Cabinet Office said that more than 22,000 people within the civil service worked in DDaT roles, which was a 62% increase from 2021. The latest numbers are due to be published on 26 July.

AI framework being developed by central government digital team

Quin’s speech echoes some of the information presented by former civil service human resources chief Rupert McNeil to cross-party MPs during a committee evidence hearing in June.

As reported by Tech Monitor, the former executive explained that the civil service had specialist skill set weaknesses in senior management and that duplicated roles needed to be merged. McNeil also made a reference to departmental competition for a “small but critical” IT skill set, where DWP and HMRC were constantly fighting over the same limited pool of talented staff.

The evidence hearing also mentioned how AI could replace inefficiencies within the civil service, with McNeil saying that senior management and trade unions needed to begin conversations now: “I think that’s the way some very tricky issues will need to be faced over the next two decades,” 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.”

While Quin didn’t go into much detail about how AI and automation would be used within the civil service, he did say that the government needed to make the most of the “myriad opportunities of data and AI” to support a modern workplace. He also explained that a “central team” of digital experts was creating a practical framework on how to use AI ethically and securely.

“Recent months have seen huge developments in [AI] technology, presenting, if developed appropriately, clear opportunities for government,” he said. “Our ambition is to use AI confidently and responsibly, where it matters most, to improve public services and boost productivity.”

Civil servants say lack of digital skills is a barrier to digital transformation in government

Quin’s announcement comes days after new research was published by Workday, which surveyed 400 UK civil servants on the “status quo of HR, finance, and enterprise planning systems” within the government. More than half (55%) of the respondents said that “fragmented and disconnected systems” was the biggest digital transformation barrier, due to the ‘elementary features’ provided by legacy IT.

Half of the civil servant pool said that another barrier was developing and retaining skilled staff, with 51% saying that ‘inflexible legacy HR and finance systems’ threaten operational resilience. Just under half said that there was not the required data visibility and tools in place for managing the workforce effectively.

“Our latest research report highlights the progress that government departments and organisations have made in terms of digital transformation,” said Daniel Pell, vice-president and country manager for UK and Ireland at Workday. “However, the report also demonstrates there is still work to be done to bring the benefits we have seen from citizen-facing digital services to the systems that civil servants use internally.”

Pell added that public sector organisations are increasingly being asked to “do more with less” despite dealing with these fundamental challenges: “When it comes to digital progression, these organisations are faced with the barriers of fragmented legacy systems and a significant skills gap,” he said. “To address these challenges, it’s crucial that public bodies use modern, flexible and easy-to-use HR, finance, and enterprise planning systems to increase efficiency and better support the workforce.”

Read more: HMRC blames outdated legacy IT for delays to digital tax system

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