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Take robots replacing civil servants with a pinch of salt

Take robots replacing civil servants with a pinch of salt


Robots could replace thousands of civil service and public sector workers, according to today’s newspapers (6 February).

The origin of the claim is a new report about public service workforce reform by the Reform think tank.

Reform is upfront about its interest in market-based approaches to public service reform, as well as its corporate funding.

Its publications often provide interesting data and challenging food for thought, as well as claims about public sector employees’ performance and productivity that some will find questionable. This latest report is no different.

First of all, the introduction of supposedly labour saving – or labour displacing – technology has been a big theme in government thinking about public service reform for some time.

And it’s a real process we can already see underway in many areas of the civil service and public sector – LSE academics Patrick Dunleavy and Leandro Carrera have written about mixed experiences in HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions and elsewhere.

But there are good reasons to be cautious about Reform’s claims for the headcount reductions that could be achieved, even in theory.

The headlines seem to be based on an estimate that almost 90% of “administrative” grade civil servants could be replaced by technology by 2030 (as well as parallel claims about NHS and other public sector staff).

This is arrived at by extrapolating findings from analysis carried out by Oxford academics in 2013 which famously suggested that about 47% of total US employment was at risk of automation.

In fact many experts expressed scepticism about Frey and Osborne’s findings, notably a recent OECD paper that concluded it exaggerated the potential of automation by a factor of about five.

This is because authors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne only looked at occupational categories rather than the diverse tasks that make up each job.

The OECD found that “even in occupations that [Frey and Osborne] expect to be at a high risk of automation, people often perform tasks which are hard to automate, such as for example interactive tasks (e.g. group work or face-to-face interactions with customers, clients, etc.)”.

As far as I can see, Reform’s analysis takes no account of what civil servants employed at lower pay grades actually do. I’m sure many would take issue with the idea that their job could be done just as well by self-service websites or chatbots.

Similarly, the report’s argument that the civil service could benefit from flatter management structures and more autonomous team-working may well merit discussion.

But its proposal that arm's length bodies like the Valuation Office Agency or the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory need to change the roles of their “middle managers” seems to be based on quite crude comparisons of their grade structures with that of the National Crime Agency – rather than an appreciation of these very different organisations’ specific roles and skill sets.

On other issues, Prospect members in the civil service and wider public sector might find more to welcome in Reform’s report.

It supports Prospect’s long-held view that the pay cap is making it harder for public sector organisations to build the workforces they need – while creating perverse incentives to hive off services as Government-owned companies as a way to “side-step rigid civil service pay scales”.

Reform also cites evidence that performance-related pay is a poor mechanism for motivating public sector workers.

And it suggests that developing workforce skills and capabilities through greater use of apprenticeships is more efficient and effective than focusing resources on buying in “high achievers” from outside the public sector.

We’d certainly be interested in Prospect members’ views on this and any other aspects of the report – please email research@prospect.org.uk if you have any reactions.

Martin McIvor

Martin McIvor


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