Most civil servants expect to be kept out of the loop on automation agenda

Survey finds that three in four government officials believe they will not be involved in decision-making

Credit: PA

Nearly three-quarters of civil servants have said they are not confident they would be involved in decisions about how the government uses new technology, in survey results revealed after cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill indicated that automation would likely lead to a smaller workforce.

Of 1,705 survey respondents to a poll by Survation for the Prospect trade union who self-identified as working in civil service and agencies, 73% said they were either “not that confident” or “not confident at all” that they will be involved in decision about how tech is implemented. In addition, 76% said they were not confident that employers would share proceeds of productivity growth with employees.

The poll data has been released following Sedwill’s prediction that automation and artificial intelligence will reduce the size of the civil service workforce.

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“I would like to see more processes handled by automation, AI and intelligent software,” Sedwill said in an interview with the government’s Civil Service Quarterly publication last week.

“This means that, overall, we will probably need fewer people. And our turnover means that we can manage that in a smooth way; that we will be able to pay those people who we retain more. It means training them more. It means ensuring, in particular, that where we value EQ as much as IQ, we’re really equipping those people to do the job well.”

Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham told CSW that Sedwill was “of course right to say that there will be a greater use of AI and other new technology in the civil service in the future, as there will be in workplaces across the country”.

He added: “The challenge is how that change is managed, and our research shows that compared to other workers, civil servants are less confident that they will be involved in decisions about tech or that they will share in the benefits that it could bring.

“If the move to a more technology-driven civil service is going to succeed, Sedwill and others need to focus as much on the humans as they do on the machines.”

More than half of those polled said they were either quite or very confident that their employer would provide training to help staff get the most from the new technology (58%), while a similar number anticipated they would receive assistance to help employees update their digital skills more generally (56%).

However, the civil service was less optimistic about being involved in decisions about the use of technology than other people who took part in the survey. The poll reported 7,500 responses from Prospect members in industries including air transport, broadcasting, defence, education, nuclear waste processing and disposal, and scientific research and development.

The cross-sector “confidence score” demonstrating how much people trusted they would be involved in tech decisions was seven percentage points higher (-42%) than it was for civil servants alone (-49%). Those in other sectors were also more optimistic that the benefits of tech would be shared with employees.

But civil servants were more optimistic they would be receive the training needed to make the most of new technology, and that they would be given help with digital skills more generally.


Sam Trendall

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