As 2024 begins – and in time-honoured fashion – PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall picks five themes that will play a big role in the months ahead. Spoiler alert: AI may be mentioned.
Credit for all images: Pixabay
AI – big opportunities and bigger threats?
Well, where else could we start? Coming off a hot streak that most recently saw ‘AI’ being named the word of the year by Collins Dictionary, artificial intelligence’s inclusion in the PublicTechnology annual trends prediction article will surely see the technology – finally – go to the next level and enter the mainstream public consciousness.
You heard it here first!
Joking aside, however, it is self-evident that AI will play a hugely significant and ever-growing role in the public sector over the course of the year ahead.
But, right now, the dangers of this role appear to outmatch the potential benefits and opportunities.
In July, civil servants were issued with guidance making it plain that they are not to use generative AI – most famously exemplified by ChatGPT – to write policy papers or other formal documents.
Government has since launched a pilot of GOV.UK Chat, a chatbot tool that uses software from the makers of ChatGPT to provide “human-like responses” to citizens’ questions. But the trials are limited, and all pronouncements so far regarding the platform have stressed the complexities caused by the need to prevent the technology accessing any personal data – even that which is provided by users themselves.
The challenges created by generative for central government will be nothing when compared with those faced by the education sector, where policing students’ potential use of automated tools will surely become more and more difficult as the sophistication and ubiquity of the technology increases.
All the while, the Department for Work and Pensions continues to experiment with using algorithms to detect suspected benefit fraud, with tens of millions of pounds committed to expanding the use of the technology in the coming months and years. But human rights and public law groups have already campaigned against the use of these tools and the perceived lack of transparency surround such uses so far.
They – and the rest of us – will be keeping a close eye on developments in 2024.
Cyberthreats and democracy
Over the next 12 months, the risks created by AI will be closely intertwined with a cyberthreat landscape that only ever gets more crowded, more complex, and more terrifying.
These threats will come into sharper focus during a year dominated by elections even if, as some are beginning to suspect, we end up making it into 2025 without voting for a new parliament.
In a little over four months’ time, more than 100 local authorities will go to the polls, including the election of 10 regional or big-city mayors in London, Liverpool, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, East Midlands, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, the North East, and the Tees Valley.
And, with the deadline for the next general election set in late January 2025, the UK will reach the end of next year with a new government in place or on the immediate horizon.
The National Cyber Security has repeatedly warned over the years of the possibility of attackers targeting both local and national democratic processes. It is also worth remembering that senior NCSC leaders have also stressed several times the inevitability of a highly destructive national-emergency category-one cyberattack – the kind of which has not been seen in the UK before.
The centre’s recently published annual report described an “enduring and significant” threat to the UK’s major institutions and critical national infrastructure, with the most severe and sophisticated attacks now often backed by hostile states – chiefly Russia.
Whoever wishes to attack the UK will have ample opportunity to aim for the cornerstones of the country’s democracy and public life next year, and government and the wider public sector will need to be on guard.
Publicity for privacy
The issue of privacy is, again, one that is closely linked to the first two items on this list. Public concerns about privacy only increase with each new and eye-catching headline concerning technology that is both powerful and autonomous, as well as with every report about a high-profile data breach.
Such concerns appear to be building towards a groundswell – not least in the public sector’s use of private data.
Recent revelations about new laws that will allow the Department for Work and Pensions to monitor citizens’ bank accounts have prompted sharp criticism of what is perceived as a major government overreach.
In the NHS, meanwhile, the likes of Amnesty International and doctors’ union the BMA have voiced grave fears over the recent decision to award to controversial big data firm Palantir a potential £500m contract to build the new Federated Data Platform.
More planned changes to UK legislation are set to widen authorities’ access to the internet records of citizens, and the police’s current use of facial recognition was recently described as having “no place in a free society” in a letter undersigned by 31 charities and 65 parliamentarians – including senior Conservatives.
In demanding their privacy, expect to see the voices of these public figures joined by a growing band or private citizens in 2024.
Spotlight on major tech projects
High levels of scrutiny are to be expected for any projects which involve the spending of hundreds of millions, if not billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money.
This focus is only intensified by government’s historic track record with major technology projects which, even by the most generous-spirited of assessors, could be described as mixed, at best.
The new year will see several, somewhat troubled programmes enter crucial stages of delivery, while other less established schemes will be tasked with laying the perhaps even more crucial foundations for long-term success.
Over the course of 2024, government’s shared services drive is set to see the award of contracts of up to 15 years in length and worth billions of pounds to the chosen suppliers, as five ‘clusters’ of departments each pick a single back-office software vendor, supported by a systems integrator.
HM Revenue and Customs has several major tech projects on the go, including delivery of the Single Trade Window which will be the unified post-Brexit digital system to support all of traders’ interactions with government, as well as a Single Customer Account which aims to deliver a “task-based, personalised and intuitive multi-channel digital experience” for citizens.
The Home Office’s Emergency Services Network – which, even in the best-case scenario, will now deliver at least 10 years late and at more than double the originally expected £6bn cost – aims to identify key technology partners in 2024. Project leaders will hope that doing so incurs no further delays or cost increases.
Meanwhile, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Tax Credit recipients to Universal Credit will continue throughout the year.
Millions more people – including those form the press and political landscape – will be keeping a close eye.
Can public services access top tech skills?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is difficult – if not impossible – for public bodies to compete with commercial institutions when seeking to recruit and retain the most sought-after talent in the fields of digital, data and technology.
But such talent is increasingly crucial to the public sector’s success – not least in the kind of projects mentioned above, but also in simply supporting the day-to-day operations of a collective workforce of 3.7 million people, providing services to more than 67 million fellow citizens.
The Cabinet Office recently revealed a rebrand of the civil service profession and function formerly known as DDaT. The hope is that the rechristened Government Digital and Data will be “viewed alongside tech giants as one of the largest and most exciting employers in the UK” for tech talent, according to government chief digital office Mike Potter.
The announcement of the new brand comes several months after ministers unveiled a secondment scheme in which such tech giants would provide employees on loan to government departments, where they would be embedded as “part of the team” for a period of months.
Initiatives to permit departments to offer leading digital practitioners salaries beyond what would normally be allowed under civil service pay frameworks have also seemingly begun to bear fruit. In its recently published annual accounts, the Ministry of Justice revealed that the Government Digital and Data Pay framework has enabled it to boost the collective annual pay packet of its tech workforce by £22m.
As they bid to increase their attractiveness to top tech talent, more government agencies will surely benefit from these potential extra allowances. Which, when coupled with the complexity and importance of projects to work on, and the chance to perform a public service, departments will be hoping adds up to a compelling offer.