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Tony Blair claims that 40% of public sector jobs could be done by AI. Is he right?

Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair published a strategy paper this week suggesting that government agencies could cut working hours by up to 40% by using artificial intelligence (AI).

A report by Blair’s think tank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, suggests the UK public sector could save 20% of staff time, but the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) could save as much as 40%.

But is the 40% figure even remotely plausible? Yahoo News spoke with experts in public sector automation to find out.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has said that adopting AI in the public sector could save £10bn a year by the end of the current parliament. The think tank’s white paper singled out the DWP for its reliance on forms and paperwork, with fraud and errors costing the social care department £9bn a year.

The think tank also suggests that using AI to streamline and automate processes could reduce backlogs. This would involve using algorithms to streamline application and assessment processes and improve prioritization, as well as reducing repetitive tasks.

Meanwhile, in employment agencies, AI personal assistants can help applicants find jobs, provide training and advice, while AI systems running in the background can help detect benefit fraud (something like this is already happening in the financial sector).

Blair told the Today programme: “Government is a process. You can automate a lot of those processes. At DWP, where we did a thorough review with one of the UK’s leading AI companies, we think you can automate 40 per cent of the tasks. And also, incidentally, provide a much better service to people.”

Bill Conner, CEO of Jitterbit and a former adviser to GCHQ security services, says the 40% figure is credible.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 6, 2023: Aerial view of GCHQ, the headquarters of government communications, on October 6, 2023 in the United Kingdom. (Photo by David Goddard/Getty Images)GLOUCESTERSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 6, 2023: Aerial view of GCHQ, the headquarters of government communications, on October 6, 2023 in the United Kingdom. (Photo by David Goddard/Getty Images)

Conner is a former adviser to GCHQ (Photo: David Goddard/Getty Images)

Conner, who helped launch e-passports in the UK, says that in itself is not implausible, but it depends on how AI is used.

“We have first-hand experience with our enterprise AI and have seen savings of up to 40%,” Conner says.

He adds that AI is particularly effective in automating processes and integrating systems, as large organizations have an average of about 1,000 applications, but only 28% of them are integrated.

“Blair’s claim is definitely not unbelievable when it comes to the possibilities of AI. However, AI is not a one-size-fits-all solution and may even create more work than it saves if not implemented properly,” he notes.

Dr Clare Walsh, director of education at the Institute of Analytics (IoA) and an expert in artificial intelligence who trained under Dr Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, said such sweeping predictions should be taken with a pinch of salt.

“The idea that 40% of public sector work could theoretically be done by AI is no different to the statistics cited more than a decade ago in an influential study from Oxford about how much work machines would do today. That prediction has not come true,” he says.

Dr Walsh adds that AI has the potential to automate tasks such as scheduling meetings, but there are issues with trusting AI models with confidential data.

“No one can upload government information to a machine that is overseas and has no rights to the data once it leaves the government system and joins the millions of data points used by multiple consumers, including criminals,” he added.

Dr Walsh believes that small steps such as automated note-taking or assistance with information retrieval can add up to significant time savings, but the civil service itself can pose unique challenges.

“Another barrier is that the civil service has some of the most complex chains of responsibility and accountability of any organisation, with systems that predate modern times. Of all the organisations in the country, the civil service seems to be one of the most difficult to introduce to the AI ​​world.”

Big savings are not unlikely in the public sector, says Kam Patel, vice president of public sector at digital workflow company ServiceNow, because many organizations are still struggling with very old IT systems.

Government research from 2021 has shown that half of the UK government’s current IT spending is spent on maintaining outdated, legacy systems.

Patel says: “AI can increase efficiency by streamlining workflows and ensuring that public servants can get away from unproductive work.” But there are risks, he adds.

“Industry leaders must always keep privacy and security top of mind, while being vigilant about potential AI-related issues. Citizens should always know when they are interacting with a chatbot, and technology leaders should monitor models for bias and other issues.”