Putting humans at the heart of the public sector robot revolution

It’s not about replacing human beings with technology, it’s about using technology to empower people.

Much has been made of the so-called ‘robot revolution’ with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies forecast to transform many industries beyond all recognition.

Once the stuff of science fiction movies, these emerging trends are fast becoming serious discussion points for organisations seeking to save time and money through automated processes and data crunching. 

For the UK public sector, tasked with protecting critical services on limited budgets whilst delivering value for money to taxpayers, such initiatives appear to be an obvious benefit.  

This week for the first time we have heard a prediction around what a truly digital public sector might look like. A new research paper from the Reform think tank has predicted that around 250,000 public sector jobs could be taken by robots in the next 15 years. 

The news has created headlines across the national and trade press, sparking a fiery debate around fears of a robot revolution alongside positive cheers of support from those who feel automation is the key to a more efficient delivery system of public services.

Changing service delivery

In truth, neither argument is entirely correct. The public sector – as with any industry sector – cannot consider itself immune to the rising tides of technology trends. Likewise the notion that an army of synthetic androids will put an entire generation on the dole is equally far from the mark. 

The truth is that the public sector has been changing the way it delivers services for a long time. 

Since the arrival of email, databases right up to the advent of online, centralised services and information sharing, the sector is adapting to suit the needs and technology capabilities of its time. 

Technology changes the way we operate but likewise we use technology to empower very human processes. 

Once upon a time, the National Health Service (NHS) stored all records in paper format only, with a pen and paper neatly tucked away in the local surgery or hospital. A request for patient records meant paper documents packed and posted, which presented quite disturbing security risks at every stage of the process.

But the NHS, like education and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is adapting its practices to reap the benefits of digital technology and information sharing. 

Patient records are being digitised to enable accuracy of information and instant sharing of confidential information, securely. This means health professionals such as doctors and nurses are properly equipped to deliver their services with accurate data and a clear insight into every aspect of the patient’s needs. 

Empowering humans

This example perfectly illustrates how technology and in particular the digitisation of information is enabling public services to improve standards, cost effectively. 

It’s not about replacing human beings with technology, it’s about using technology to empower people. This means taking hold of new trends such as flexible working and big data sharing to enable employees to develop their own unique workstyles. It also means improving the digital dexterity of the workforce, with far too many public sector employees missing out on the core training they need to develop skills for future working processes. 

For example, collaboration technologies and bring your own device policies are enabling employee choice in many public sector organisations. By equipping workers with personalised IT and giving them flexibility over working patters and approaches, you can successfully unlock new talents and change the way an organisation operates for the better.

With this in mind, the rise of the robots in the public sector should be met with the same approach as other industry areas. 

The most important step for safeguarding jobs and future roles is to ensure better skills training and support for workers who are most likely to be affected by these changes.

Whilst administration and number crunching could well be handled by a machine, there are numerous other mission critical tasks which require digital skills and creative thinking to delivery and achieve.

Management roles, customer services, human resources, training and operational functions are all jobs which could potentially benefit from technology support, enabling workers instant access to critical information. 

Equipping workers

It’s up to the decision-makers to recognise these forthcoming changes around digital disruption and properly equip workers with the tools and training they need to thrive in a constantly changing world of digital disruption.

To achieve this, the public sector must focus on people at the heart of its digital by default strategy and recognise that technology – however impressive or expensive – is no substitute for human talents.

This means designing new digital processes to unlock potential and encourage new ways of working that bring fresh ideas to departments. It means investing in IT that enables collaboration between people, departments and so that value is delivered at every layer of the organisation. This means tackling the UK’s skills crisis through education, opportunity and apprenticeships across all areas of society.  

It also means ensuring that robots do not become a poor substitute for the highly skilled men and women who work tirelessly day in and day out to deliver world class public services across the country. 

Fighting the rise of the robots in the public sector will prove fruitless in the long term. Yet arguing the case for people-centric technology investment, support and services for workers could help create a sharper public sector that truly optimised the talents of the public sector workforce.

To achieve this, we have to remember that the rise of the robots will bring nothing unless it can support people to bring personality and passion to the noble cause of public service.  

Chas Moloney, Director, Ricoh UK
Image Credit: IAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chas Moloney has been a Director at Ricoh UK for 11 and a half years.