The Future of Work
A recent roundtable gathered experts to discuss the future of work and how the Civil Service can prepare its staff and organisational structures to thrive in the world of automation and AI
Kindly supported by PA Consulting

Anywhere there is AI there will be an impact on people and the workforce. There are three main areas of concern that need to be addressed, said Keith Joughin, PA public sector and human capital expert, from PA Consulting. “First one is being really deliberate on what AI is and what it means to people and what impact it will have on their jobs. Does it free up capacity? Do people need new skills?” he said. It is important to change people’s mindset and behaviour. Most realise now that machines won’t replace people as previously feared in the Doomsday scenario. “But how do we drive this change?” he asks the panel. The third aspect is skills. “The future of work is a race between tech and skills. I think tech is winning that race at the moment. We sign investment in tech around automation and AI, but we do not make the same level of investment in people and skills”.

“Studies show that AI increases jobs. However, we need to be careful and develop a continued focus on skills, but not at the expense of other experience we need”, claims Liz Tolcher, PA public sector and human capital expert, from PA Consulting. “It’s like STEM: value of combing art and science”.

The key to modernising reform in the Civil Service is to take a systems approach on how different systems interoperate - how they are different, and they can work together argues Mark Thompson, Civil Service Reform. “This isn’t just about tech but about the culture of the organisation”. “We need to think about how things hang together before we make the investments. It is better to use a process that can do multiple tasks. Moreover, digital processes should not be loaded onto something that is already bad. You can’t put lipstick on a pig”, Thomson adds.

Matthew Coffee, deputy COO at Ofsted argues that while his department is relatively small (1,900 staff) they are data rich and argues that AI is instrumental to their work. It frees up critical time and resources so staff can spend more time engaging with customers. It also helps Ofsted push barriers by linking up data to see where the hotspots are for missing children across the country and work with the police closely. As a result, Ofsted have embedded 5 or 6 projects on the back of AI which have served to allay fears amongst teams. Coffee adds that his colleagues feel they are making an impact in the roles and calls on the other government departments to involve ‘little fish’ like Ofsted so they can benefit from developments. “Otherwise, it becomes disproportionately  expensive for us,” concludes Coffee. 

“Automation is about looking how we do things differently. We don’t necessarily need to follow the same process, you can jump lots of areas to get to the place where you want to be,” argues Andrew who works as the Director for Workplace Transformation. Automation must work for colleagues and customers alike, and to this end it is vital the workforce is upskilled to understand the data and be clear on how to use it.

Philip Golding, Chief Executive of the Law Commission, stresses that technology, policy and law need work in harmony. “If you develop legal frameworks too early you stifle innovation, if you do it too late it’s impossible to roll back”. It is important that policy makers, lawyers, parliamentarians  etc understand the parameters of automation. “Law Commission should be involved in setting some of the pace in terms of legal framework. If we get this wrong we
miss a massive opportunity of improving public services and we lose public confidence,”
Golding warns.

“This is not about digital transformation, but about work and people transformation,” highlights Hugh from one of the world’s leading tech companies. Employers must avoid just giving AI to teams, but instead ask how they fundamentally restructure the teams. More senior and skilled roles are required for this transformation.  It doesn’t take long, but other leading tech companies need to invest as well. Hugh points to the lack of Mandarin speakers his company have employed, while instead relying on AI programmes. Native speakers understand the colloquial and nuanced information and they are data scientists as well.
While Automation is critical, so is the need for people at the other end to make decisions and
link it all together.

Steven Higgin, from DHSC, argues that the Civil Service is only ‘scratching the service in terms of what AI can do’. “It can scan huge amounts of data and see patterns, better than humans. But it can’t use judgement or sympathy. We need both”. Workplaces must reassure staff how effective AI is, and rather than taking roles away it will facilitate existing ones.

Nick Joicey from DWP also highlights the vital role of both machines and humans in thew
workplace. “Data allows us to understand work needs and automation help process it, but humans are necessary for for the decision making”. The pandemic has accelerated and changed our approach to modernisation. We now have developed automated processes more quickly than we would normally have done. Nick also calls for further integration of systems and to see how departments can transfer their successes. Commitment to
investment is a key driver in AI’s success as it can be difficult to predict benefits in the long term which is then problematic when including in financial/investment  decisions. Further support and coaching of skills is requited to help people understand and best employ the tech.

We have tools that prevented billions of losses during the pandemic, adds Nick. “We work
closely with NCSC and have developed techniques in cyber security and analysing data and 

looking at trends”.  But there is also the need to further invest significantly over the coming

Small departments need ninja teams to help them access tech as they are many of them who together make up a large section of the Civil Service. Consideration must be given on how they can best protect themselves. Also, when interlinking systems it is important to remember there are three different legal systems across the UK. The management of leaks is also an important issue.

It’s sad that it took a disaster to bring about advancements in tech that many of the panel have been calling for so long. While we do not want more governance, we need to consider how we can improve cross-border coordination. Covid has allowed us to break down barriers, take risks in sharing data and this was very successful, argues Matthew Coffee.

There is also a risk of departments going off at a tangent and doing their own thing due to cost restrictions. Here the Cabinet Office can help with strategic oversight. Going forward, we must view progress thematically, rather than working alone.

Finally, HR should be involved in the conversation from the start to avoid pitfalls later down the process.