Budget Day, 2030. The Chancellor of the Exchequer emerges from No.11 and takes a driverless UKGOV ride to the newly-renovated House of Commons. Standing before the Commons, the Chancellor announces that the Government will abolish 250,000 Whitehall employees, saving the Government £2.6 billion.
No, this is not my attempt at writing an alternative history but a potential reality summarised in a new report, ‘Work in Progress: Towards a leaner, smarter public sector workforce’ by the think tank, Reform.
The UK Public Sector, which stands at 5.3 million, the report argues must adapt to a rapidly changing world, with technological and demographic pressures. Consumers want a public sector that is as easy to navigate as ordering an Uber or booking on Airbnb. 1/3 of people say they would prefer to book a GP appointment online but fewer than 10% have done so. This demand for easy access explains why subscription services such as Push Doctor, who provide immediate access to GPs via video consultation are used by 350,000 people in the UK.
The drive for a leaner government is not just restricted to the NHS but spread across Whitehall. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has in the last decade reduced its administrative staff from 96,000 to 60,000 through moving to online services. It plans to reduce 11,000 more in its aim to make the department, ‘diamond-shaped’ with an emphasis on the frontline staff.
The report bases its calculations on the formula derived by Frey and Osborne, with the most significant finding being that routine administrative roles in Whitehall have a 96% chance of being automated by current technology.
Applying this calculation to the current public-sector has some potential alarmingly results, which over the next 10-15 years, would radically re-shape Government, not seen since the high tide of Thatcherism. In this timeframe, central government departments could reduce headcounts by 131,962 saving a colossal £2.6 billion.
While this discussion is purely academic, the threat of automation is very real. The risks created by automation are spread across the ‘drivers’ of Connected Risk. A widespread reduction of the UK public sector would be politically unfeasible for UK parties. Similarly, embracing online services carry the risk that private sensitive information can be easily hacked.
One thing is for certain, the growing use of automation in Whitehall will forever change the relationship between Government and the citizen.