Don’t fear the robots, but fear what you could be missing out on

“There aren’t many moments in human history when a technology turns up that changes everything”. So said Richard Wood, the UK’s Ambassador to Norway, commenting on the government’s new billion-pound artificial intelligence (AI) deal. The initiative, launched in April this year and backed by 50 leading technology firms, will help the UK remain a leader in the digital economy and enable “AI to transform our society for the better”.

The public sector is already laying the right foundations for this transformation. Almost three-quarters of organisations are heading to the cloud in response to rising citizen expectations and tougher financial demands. In the cloud, the public sector can deliver modernised digital services fit for the 21st Century, but this move also lays the foundation for future innovation. The cloud enables organisations to adopt a host of emerging technologies that they don’t have the capacity to build or run internally—including robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning and, ultimately, AI.

The UK now leads all other OECD countries in its readiness to implement AI in public sector delivery. Of course, readiness is one thing—willingness is another. For many, the mere mention of ‘AI’, ‘machine learning’, or ‘robots’ still conjures up visions of employees being ousted and replaced, or at least the need for lengthy and expensive technology rollouts. Fortunately, the reality isn’t robots sitting in our offices, drinking our coffee. RPA is simply another tool; think of it as a virtual workforce sitting in the cloud that can help existing staff become more efficient and effective.

Deploying this virtual workforce brings enormous benefits. Automating repetitive activities like form-checking, transaction processing and refunds saves considerable time and money. Better still, a virtual workforce doesn’t make mistakes, ensuring greater accuracy and eliminating wasted time and effort. One London council recently automated housing benefit processing, slashing the time needed from 240 person days to just 19 days—with not a single error made. A virtual workforce also enables far greater agility, since it can scale up at little additional cost to deal with a sudden leap in demand and lighten the load on staff.

Instead of fearing robots, the public sector should greet them with open arms. After all, no one enjoys dull, mundane tasks. The more routine processes are automated, the more time staff can spend making a meaningful difference in the lives of citizens when it matters most. Ultimately, this translates into greater job satisfaction and higher retention rates. A good example of this in practice comes from Enfield Council, which recently deployed a chatbot to deal with straightforward citizen enquiries, freeing staff to focus on more complex cases. Far from taking our jobs, it seems robots will help keep us in them for longer.

In the digital age, security and trust are also becoming increasingly crucial for the public sector. It’s often forgotten that a virtual workforce can help here too: processes that depend on sensitive citizen data can be automated to eliminate the risk of human misbehaviour and ensure a clear audit trail for activities.

Ultimately, the robots are coming. Every year, virtual workforces become cheaper and easier to deploy, while their capabilities increase. Our own pilot programmes suggest an average return on investment of at least 6:1. As the benefits of RPA become more widely understood, so too the myths and fears surrounding it are being eroded. The robots aren’t coming for our jobs; they’re coming to make our lives easier and more fulfilling. So, while we focus on exceptional citizen outcomes, why not leave the nuts and bolts to the robots?

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