Government’s top official predicts civil service ‘will need fewer people’ as automation takes hold

Written by Jim Dunton and Sam Trendall on 18 February 2020 in News

Cabinet secretary Sedwill says he ‘would like to see more processes handled’ by technology

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Government’s most senior official has indicated that the civil service will likely shrink after a period of post-referendum expansion as increasing use is made of automation and artificial intelligence to deliver services.

Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill (pictured above) said he expected the reduction in the size of the service – which numbered just over 419,000 as of September, according to the Institute for Government – to be managed in a “smooth” way through the organisation’s turnover rates. The civil service has grown in number every year since 2016, when its headcount was at a post-war low of 384,260, the IfG said.

Sedwill added that a smaller civil service would also give greater leeway for departments to pay their remaining staff more – and recognised that staff leaving one department for another in order to boost their pay was an “embedded incentive” that Whitehall needed to deal with.

“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. “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.”

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According to the IfG, just 9% of staff left the civil service in 2017-18, which is the latest year for which figures are available, but it said the inter-departmental turnover rate was a bigger issue.

Sedwill's comments come hot on the heels of the publication of a major report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life which examined the impact of AI on the ethical delivery of public services. According to committee chair Lord Jonathan Evans, three of the seven Nolan principles designed to guide the work of all public servants – openness, objectivity, and transparency – are at risk of being impacted by the increased use of algorithms and automation.

The report made 15 recommendations for government and the wider public sector, including the introduction of mandatory impact assessments ahead of AI deployments, and standards to which technology suppliers will be required to adhere.

“Artificial intelligence – and in particular, machine learning – will transform the way public sector organisations make decisions and deliver public services,” said Evans in the report’s foreword. “The government has committed significant resources to this new technology through the AI Sector Deal, which promises to deliver a more accurate, capable and efficient public sector.”

He added: “Adherence to high public standards will help fully realise the great benefits of AI in public service delivery. By ensuring that AI is subject to appropriate safeguards and regulations, the public can have confidence that new technologies will be used in a way that upholds the Seven Principles of Public Life. Our conclusion from this review is that these principles will remain a valid guide for public sector practice as AI is deployed across all levels of government.”

Sedwill's full interview can be read here.


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