public sector employment
Statistically speaking, one of these government employees should be made redundant by automation technology

President Donald Trump’s hiring freeze on government employees could have very far-reaching significance for the US public sector and those in many other countries. 

Trump has ordered, albeit informally, that all civilian departments of the government – including the health service – stop hiring any new employees.

At a time of increasingly capable automation, this could mean that not only will the public sector not be employing any new staff, it could actually be firing huge numbers of people.

Automation technology can now be used to do the job of literally millions of people in the public sector, particularly in what might be called the “customer-facing” areas.

Virtual assistants can deal with enquiries from members of the public, and business process software can reduce the number of people required to deal with all the internal administration related to running huge organisations.

The US government is currently said to employ more than 22 million people, although that figure probably includes the military, which is exempt from Trump’s hiring freeze.

Scare stories abound about how the White House could replace millions of US government workers with robots – real and virtual – and Trump now has a difficult decision to make.

Should his administration go full-steam ahead and adopt artificial intelligence systems to run the government machinery, making millions redundant, or… not?

Trump’s Republican Party has never been a fan of what they call “big government”, and has always sought to reduce its size. One obvious way to do it would be to fire a lot of workers.

Given the advances in computing, artificial intelligence, and other areas of technology, this might be an inevitability, regardless of whether it’s the Republicans in charge or the Democrats.

AI technology – physical and virtual robots included – is forecast to eliminate 6 per cent of all US jobs by 2021, a conservative forecast perhaps but one which still sees close to 20 million people being made redundant out of a total US workforce of 230 million people approximately.

The sectors most such scare stories refer to are transportation – autonomous Uber cars replacing human taxi drivers, for example – and customers services, where chatbots with voice capabilities are increasingly making inroads.

But automation technology has made people redundant in every sector of employment since the days of the Industrial Revolution a couple of hundred years ago, and now with computerisation and internet connectivity, it’s likely to accelerate its disruptive power.

Trump’s announcement of a hiring freeze has been dismissed as a “knee-jerk reaction” and a “mindless way to manage”, but as with many pronouncements that emerge from the Trump camp, they are deceptive in their sophistication, and could have wide-ranging consequences.

But observers in the US claim it’s just Trump sounding off again. “There’s less there than meets the eye,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

Whatever happens, the newly created US Digital Service – a government department which spends a fraction of most of the others – is likely to play a big role.

The USDS – established in 2014 under former President Barack Obama and which has a budget of $30 million – says it is “dedicated to measurably improving our nation’s most important public-facing services”, although it doesn’t say how many other government departments its work is likely to decimate in numbers.

One of its recent projects was to make the US import-export system great again, which may or may not have been inspired by Trump’s well-known policy of changing the country’s international trading relations.

In the UK, a new report produced by a think tank called Reform says robots “should” replace 250,000 public sector workers. People rarely say “should” in this context for fear of seeming insensitive in the face of so many people potentially losing their jobs, but it could be argued that at least they’re honest about what seems to be inevitable.

Government spending is always a controversial political issue, and Reform is advocating for what it calls “a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce”.

Public services can become the next Uber, says Reform, using the gig economy to employ locum doctors and supply teachers. And the think tank warns of a “frozen middle” of Whitehall managers blocking necessary change.

The number of public-sector workers in the UK has already fallen by 1 million since 2009, to 5.3 million. The trend should continue due to automation, says Reform.

Reform claims its research shows that websites and artificially intelligent chat bots will remove the need for over 90 per cent of Whitehall’s 137,000 administrators by 2030, saving £2.6 billion a year. Similar approaches will replace 90,000 NHS administrators and 24,000 GP receptionists.

Some Whitehall departments have up to 14 levels of employment, says Reform, adding that only eight levels are considered the maximum for well-functioning public-sector bodies.

In future, civil servants should organise themselves in self-managing teams, says Reform, as the Government Digital Service did when building the Gov.uk website in only 12 weeks. Real-time feedback should replace cumbersome appraisal systems to improve motivation in areas such as the police, where 94 per cent of employees believe morale is low.

Ministers should learn from mistakes in public services rather than looking for scapegoats, argues Reform. A blame culture in the police has stifled understanding of why mistakes happen.

One in 10 hospital visits result in error, claims Reform, costing the NHS up to £2.5 billion a year.

In Reform’s opinion, UK Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has “rightly sought to introduce a learning culture” in the NHS. The controversial think tank adds that ministers should strengthen complaints bodies so that they provide better support to whistle blowers.

HMRC – the tax collecting office – and the Ministry of Defence have created special units with greater freedom over pay, terms and conditions in order to recruit specific skills, points out Reform, adding that the same principle should apply to the whole public sector.

A more flexible working environment, including shared kitchens, can create “watercooler” moments of interaction to disseminate ideas across Whitehall departments, schools and hospitals.

A new approach to recruitment would bring the profile of employees closer to the private sector, which has three times as many under-24s as a proportion of its workforce, says Reform.

To improve diversity, less emphasis should be placed on degrees when recruiting. Police forces, schools and the Civil Service should recruit more apprentices to introduce wider skills, says the report.

Alexander Hitchcock, report co-author, said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively. But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”

But AI is still not as clever as it thinks it is, so there is no likelihood of overnight change.

Last week, Google’s DeepMind AI system mistook the entire UK National Health Service system – one of the world’s oldest and largest government-run health organisations – for a botnet.

DeepMind decided that the NHS was a cyber threat and blocked access to anyone trying to access its systems, according to a story on TheRegister.co.uk.

Approximately 1.2 million people work for the NHS, and it’s one of the government’s biggest expenses. How the government balances the demand for less government spending with the public’s continuing support for the NHS is open to question, although Reform seems to have made its mind up.

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