I’ve spent quite some time now consulting in various public bodies across the UK and sometimes wonder why artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are not being used to simplify operations and deliver a better, more efficient service.

It was with some relief that I read the Government’s Digital Strategy last week, which thankfully includes a major AI review to consider how Government and business can work together to back the growth of this industry in the UK.

Current uses of AI

There is undoubtedly a huge amount going on in this space across different sectors at the moment. For example, banks such as Goldman Sachs and hedge funds have embraced automation, installing automated trading programmes on their trading desks.

AI is also becoming more common in the legal sector. Lawyers can spend up to 80% of their time reviewing contracts – when a computer could do the same job faster and more accurately. Automating contract review means lawyers can focus on more valuable work.

Medicine is embracing the possibilities provided by AI to improve the service to patients. Computerised AI software is more likely to get a correct diagnosis than a GP.

Applications in the public sector

With all this in mind, isn’t it time for the public sector to start considering in earnest how it can make use of AI technology to support service provision to citizens?

There are a number of areas where it could prove beneficial, for example where customer service desk staff deal with formulaic queries or standard sets of questions in order to inform a decision (e.g. deciding on benefits payments or what to do when someone calls 111 after suffering a burn). There’s no need to have a person sitting on the phone reading out questions from a computer or a sheet of paper and making a decision based on the answers. A computerised system can do the same, waste less time in an emergency, and make a decision that is less likely to be influenced by human error – giving staff the time to focus on more in-depth queries that do require human intervention.

AI would also be useful where large quantities of data need to be sorted, e.g. when a public department needs to identify which records to include in The National Archives.

When suspicious transactions are made on a cash card, AI can be used to contact the customer to validate recent transactions. And when a customer is not finding the information they need on a website, AI is able to provide online customer support just as well as a human would do.

Why consider AI as part of your transformation strategy

Understandably, there are some concerns around AI that need to be worked through. The nightmare scenario – possibly not helped by films like Terminator! – is that robots become so advanced that they end up replacing humans, leaving millions of people unemployed.

However, AI is coming onto the scene whether we want it or not. And when used appropriately, AI is able to support staff in their day-to-day jobs by removing the boring tasks that can be automated. Using this technology should in turn allow your skilled staff to focus on the things that they do best – delivering value to citizens and customers.

With this announcement by government of a major AI review, I’d say that now is the right time for the public sector to start embracing this type of technology and decide how it can be used to support service delivery to citizens. The private sector is already leveraging its benefits. So why should the public sector not take advantage of AI too?

First steps

But where to start?

A good first step would be to make an audit of process-based decisions that are made across a whole department. That includes customer interactions that form part of the decision-making process and the amount of time and effort each case takes up internally. Taking this first step will enable the public sector to understand if and where AI technology can be used to assist with the delivery of their services.