Challenges of deploying AI to run public services more efficiently

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Jul 11, 2024


In its 2024 general election manifesto, Labour promised to support the tech and digital sectors through a new industrial strategy and set about planning rules to boost digital infrastructure.

The Tony Blair Institute (TBI) has now issued a report, Governing in the age of AI: Reimagining the UK department for work and pensions (DWP), detailing how even “the largest, most complex departments such as the DWP can be transformed” in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). It said embracing AI is necessary to “get to grips with the high costs and ineffectiveness of the DWP”.

According to the TBI, this can be achieved through better prioritisation and triage, as well as improvements to application and eligibility-assessment processes. “Delivering this policy would show that change is possible, allow support to reach citizens before their circumstances worsen, and free up time and space for deeper reform,” the TBI said.

It has also urged the government to turn the DWP into an “AI exemplar” to drive economic growth. 

Under the previous administration, AI, with a National AI strategy and the Bletchley Declaration, was seen as a technology wave the Tories could ride to make the UK more pro-innovation and drive growth in the digital economy.

However, The use of artificial intelligence in government National Audit Office (NAO) report published on 15 March found the government lacked a coherent plan to support adoption of AI in the public sector as part of its 2021 National AI Strategy. “One aim of the National AI Strategy is for the public sector to become an exemplar of safe and ethical deployment of AI,” the NAO warned.

It’s too early to see where Labour is heading, but in March, Peter Kyle, the incoming secretary of state for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), said a priority would be to support the use of “everyday AI” in small businesses, as well as supporting “the next 10 Deep Minds through their startup and scale up in the UK”. Labour has a 10-year industrial strategy, and Kyle wants to ensure the UK public sector is a leader in responsible AI.

Major challenge

The public sector has the potential to be more efficient and productive through AI adoption, but putting AI to use across the public sector is a major challenge Labour now faces. As the authors of the NAO report warned, large quantities of good-quality data are important to train, test and deploy AI models. “Our survey found that limited access to good-quality data was a barrier to implementing AI and central government support was important to address this,” they said.

Elena Simperl, director of research at the Open Data Institute, believes the UK urgently needs to broaden the AI narrative to take in an understanding of data and the needs of the people using it. “AI brings significant opportunities for efficiency, economic growth and innovation,” she said. “If we want to unlock the UK’s AI potential and secure our place as world leaders, we must place data at the heart of what we do.”

However, Simperl warned that the UK faces many challenges, from a shortage of foundational data skills to concerns about the trustworthiness of data and concerns over data sharing, which, she said, all need urgent attention for the UK to take full advantage of AI’s opportunities.

She also said that with both the public and private sectors increasingly relying on data and new technologies – including AI – to drive efficiency and improve services and products, everyone should be aware of the opportunities and limitations.

“Disparities in access to data and information persist, creating a digital divide that hinders social progress and economic development,” said Simperl. Data from the ODI shows that 30% of the UK population are unaware of the most prominent generative AI products, including ChatGPT2.  “Those who are familiar with new generative AI tools aren’t always aware of how they should be used productively and responsibly,” she said. 

Discussing the responsible use of AI, Anna Dent, head of research at Promising Trouble, said: “Automation relies on vast data, raising concerns about data sources and citizen consent. The controversy surrounding the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill highlights the delicate balance between data usage and privacy rights.”

She urged policymakers to focus on upskilling staff to equip public sector employees with the knowledge to understand and assess automated systems. She recommended that public sector decision-makers need to examine the underlying reasons for automation to ensure that such systems do not replicate or exacerbate existing issues. As and when public sector bodies look at deploying automated systems, Dent said they need to be implemented with consistent impact evaluations that empower authorities to modify harmful systems.

One of the opportunities – at least in the private sector, has been the use of AI to enhance chatbots, which alleviates some of the strain on call centre staff. Looking at chatbots in public sector services, Paul Waller, research principal at Thorney Isle Research, pointed to the limitations demonstrated in the Government Digital Service’s experiment with a chatbot interface to Gov.uk.

He said that GDS found the chatbot’s answers did not reach the level of accuracy demanded for a site where factual accuracy is crucial. “For the same reason (plus their lack of explainability and consistency), they are not suitable for use in statutory administrative procedures,” said Weller.

Waller also urged policymakers not to use such AI tools to summarise policy consultations. “A chatbot summary will not enable the nuanced positions on the policy by stakeholder groups to be ascertained,” he said. “Further, even if accurate, an automated summarisation does not fulfil the democratic function of a consultation, to allow all voices to be heard and shown to be heard. Similar issues apply to using these tools to generate policy advice.”

Clearly the new Labour government needs to have an open debate on the risks and opportunities of deploying AI and automated systems in public services. Eduardo Ustaran, partner and co-head of privacy and cyber security practice Hogan Lovells, said AI is an opportunity for growth that cannot be dismissed as too dangerous.

“The new UK government should be guided by the universal principle that technological development is here to help humanity by increasing prosperity and its overall well-being, so a good regulatory policy will actively support its development by focusing on promoting good outcomes for all,” he said.

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