Opportunity knocks: Which are the most fruitful opportunities to use emerging technology to improve public outcomes? And how can leaders seek to realise these opportunities.
Chaired by Tom Read, Chief Executive Officer, Government Digital Service
Kindly supported by EY

New technologies have always revolutionised the way that people interact with what they care about. But can the technology which powers products like Twitter and blockbuster films be used to deliver better public services? If they can, how can the entire civil service – from leadership to administration staff – use these innovations to improve the lives of citizens?

These were the questions that the ‘Opportunity Knocks’ roundtable, as part of Civil Service Live 2023, aimed to answer. Chaired by the CEO of the Government Digital Service, Tom Read, the roundtable was focused on understanding how tools like the ones described are already being used in public services, whether in the UK or internationally, and how they could be used to create better outcomes for the public.

The panel – with representatives from DWP, DCMS, Central Digital and Data Office, Government Communication Service, Health Security Agency and No.10, as well as being kindly sponsored EY – had some examples, but were keen to get something straight first: the most important thing is getting the basics right.

Many of those who attended said that there would be little point if we embraced innovative technologies – and their possibilities – if we disregard the fundamental lo-tech work which reaches many people and informs them about Government services. One of the attendees outlined how one of the most engaged-with communication products for helping people receive benefits and other financial assistance was through a series of leaflets made available at food banks.

Another attendee took up this idea of ensuring the fundamentals were right but reflected that idea back to the Government workplace. They referenced how even though there are great ambitions within the Civil Service to embrace this work, there is a lot of technology currently being used by civil servants which is out of date, difficult to use, or complicated by bureaucracy. This, they said, was a two-fold problem, in that first this complexity stimies embracing any innovative change, and second that this complexity is at times reflected in the services that are provided to the public.

Following this, there was a great desire and motivation within the room to – as Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisolm has suggested – ‘clear the sludge’ from the Civil Service processes and continue to help citizens. This latter point was praised by one of the attendees, who said that any plan to use innovative technology should not be an end in itself, but be focused on achieving a specific outcome for the public.

One of the Sponsors from EY took up this idea of making processes clearer – giving an example of how it once took over six months for a fairly innocuous piece of research to be published and cleared by Government officials and political colleagues. They used this to outline how any new tech implemented should help improve the way that civil servants work, as well as being led by citizens’ needs as well as supporting greater interoperability.

This idea was picked up by another attendee who outlined that any new tech should not necessarily replace the ‘old tech’ but work alongside it. Indeed, in many circumstances, using AI could act as a very helpful ‘bolt-on’ to the systems we already have in place which are serving the public well. The group then turned to focusing on the dual benefits for public service staff and for the public.

They gave the example of an AI chatbot that the Royal Navy had implemented on their website – an AI whose data set was defined within the Naval guidelines. This AI bot would serve as a ‘front line’ for many of the FAQs which people interested in applying for a position – or have any question about the Royal Navy – could ask. What’s more, it also offered them a chance to ask perhaps sensitive questions without the anxiety of discussing them with a real person. This meant that actual call handlers were able to deal with the more complex questions the public may have, ones where a human touch would be greatly appreciated. This, according to the attendee, was a very good example of the false equivalence between implementing new tech and firing staff, there is no distinction. New technologies have always revolutionised the way that people interact with what they care about. But can the technology which powers products like Twitter and blockbuster films be used to deliver better public services? If they can, how can the entire civil service – from leadership to administration staff – use these innovations to improve the lives of

This point was first addressed by one of the EY sponsors, who spoke about how we must be rigorously focused on the ‘end-to-end’ journey of public services, and understanding the role that innovative technology can have on this. Much of the work will focus on the basics, but once we get those basics working well, we will start to see great improvements. Another of the attendees spoke to this, developing on where AI can actually help achieve getting the basics right, without having to commit to a huge Government contract. They stated that what AI is very good at is making decisions, based on its data set and the questions that have been put to it.

Another participant took this up and said that, while AI has the ability to make decisions, it won’t mean that people will be displaced. After all, a servant of the Crown must make decisions when it comes to our citizens – that is a bottom line. This always has to be about productivity and giving people that assurance that any decision made has been rigorous. There was some discussion about how we get around or eradicate bias within these systems, however one participant said that bias is indeed a problem in AI system which use ‘the whole of the internet’ as a dataset, but often within small and more focused issues you can circumnavigate those bias if you have the right trained people looking at the data. One attendee focused on how those systems can work incredibly well within Government, and gave a personal example of the recent work that has gone into getting a new passport, and how impressed they were with how seamless, effective and quick that whole procedure was
– underlining the fact that the Civil Service is capable of great levels of service, where technology supports a quicker and better customer result.

A participant discussed how AI can improve the democratisation of innovation within the Civil Service, allowing workers to remove this ‘snail shell of legacy’ which so many public workers feels like they are trapped inside. Getting more civil servants focused on AI will mean that more ideas and better innovations could be implemented into public services. However, to make this work there needs to be a culture of experimentation in to the public sector – not every result may work, but ensuring that there is that space for civil servants to test and trial new ideas then that could reap benefits for the citizen. Another participant reflected on this, highlighting the fact that there is a mistrust within the public about how the Government uses their data, and even though there is nothing for them to be concerned
about, it is a factor that the public sector would have to address.

One of the EY sponsors and another participant spoke to this and outlined how skills would need to be addressed within the public sector to alleviate that concern. Right now, there is a varied digital literacy landscape within the leadership of the public sector and if we want to ensure that innovative decisions can be made – innovations that treat data effectively – then we need to improve digital skills. The host then brought the discussion on to how we can realise these opportunities we have spoken about: how do we democratise innovation across the Civil Service? Should we set up innovation labs across the Civil Service, or should we offer civil servants time to find out how their specific sector can embrace innovation.

This created much debate within the roundtable, which resulted on two final points. The first was that leadership will be key to this work – ensuring that there is time for civil servants to learn on the job and be a part of that change. The second was that we don’t have to do it all by ourselves. There could be great opportunity for partnership between government and tech innovators, many who would most likely be very keen to be involved in this work improving the digital skills of civil servants for free.