Automation

By Vimi Grewal-Carr, Innovation lead, Deloitte and Jemma Venables, Innovation Insight, Deloitte

During the past six years of austerity the public sector has been under significant pressure to cut costs and at the same time improve service delivery.

This seems like an impossible ask.

However, smart investment in technology could provide the answer to this conundrum. Sophisticated technology is helping to automate an increasing number of repetitive tasks. If the government invests wisely, utilising technologies and working practices that facilitate automation could free up public sector workers to focus on complex cognitive or interactive parts of their job.

The shape of the UK public sector

Public sector employment in the UK can be split in to three types of role:

  • Administrative/operative – desk-based or physical occupations whose tasks are mostly repetitive and predictable, such as central government administration or hospital porters
  • Interactive – front line service delivery, which involves a high degree of customer service and interpersonal skills, such as carers or teachers
  • Cognitive – occupations that require strategic thinking or complex cognitive reasoning such as medical practice managers or taxation experts

Figure 1. Public sector jobs by probability of automation and employment type, 2015

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Source: Osborne and Frey, ONS and Deloitte analysis 2016

Automation can play a valuable role across each of these employment types by delivering savings and/or improving services. It is the incidence of repetitive tasks in each type of employment that will determine the extent that automation will be a substitute for human labour (a source of public sector savings), or complementary (delivering societal benefit and indirect savings through improved service delivery).

Throughout the austerity years, the requirement for upfront investment in technology and data to facilitate automation has been at odds with tight controls on spending. However, as the budget pressures have grown and various types of automation have become more established, the appetite to invest and the ability to spot opportunities to innovate throughout the public sector has increased.

Administrative and operative

Approximately a quarter of public sector workers are employed in administrative or operative jobs, which based on Osborne and Frey’s estimates, generally have a high chance of being automated.  This presents an opportunity to achieve savings and also highlights the need for workers in these occupations to be given support and training to cope effectively in a changeable environment.

The invention of email and digital filing systems has improved efficiency in many administrative occupations. The speed that technology develops to support digital business functions is so fast that many organisations struggle with the interoperability of their systems and require administrative staff to manually input data in to several systems. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software is becoming a cost effective and high quality alternative to human labour for this kind of repetitive process, particularly in shared services and government administration.

Autonomous vehicle technology can transform some occupations within the public sector. Initially these technologies will require humans to oversee them, but over time these jobs will diminish although others are likely to be created e.g. control centre co-ordination or repair and maintenance work. Transport for London has invested and benefitted from this technology through the ‘driverless’ Docklands Light Railway and forthcoming roll-out of 250 similar trains on the underground network by 2022.  However, there is still significant untapped potential in this area.

The development of RPA and the ever increasing sophistication of physical robots represents a big opportunity for the public sector to achieve savings while achieving high quality.

Figure 2.  Actual and projected employment for two example administrative and operative occupations

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Source: Osborne and Frey, ONS and Deloitte analysis 2016

Interactive

About half of public sector jobs are interactive and have a relatively low probability of being automated over the next 10-20 years. However, even in these occupations, which are less susceptible to automation there are generally at least some repetitive tasks where machines could complement human capacity. 

For example, every four hours, nurses traditionally perform ‘rounds’ in their wards to check the vital signs of their patients and monitor progress or deterioration in the patient’s condition. Improvements in sensor technology mean that some hospitals are now able to automatically, and continuously, monitor their patients’ vital signs.

The same technologies are also helping elderly people to live within their home for longer, as sensors can monitor movement and vital signs alerting the health provider to any abnormalities.

Technology will change the emphasis shifting away from manual monitoring and towards remote data analytics and providing targeted, quality interaction with patients.

Figure 3.  Actual and projected employment for two example interactive occupations

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Source: Osborne and Frey, ONS and Deloitte analysis 2016

Cognitive

Approximately one fifth of public sector workers are in occupations that require complex problem solving, judgement and cognitive reasoning. Currently, the tasks within these occupations are very difficult to automate. However, as with interactive roles, there are often tasks within the occupation that can be completed, or enriched with technology and data analytics.

The public sector have trail-blazed the use of data analytics and algorithms within complex resource allocation challenges, particularly for the blue light services, such as within Accident and Emergency departments.

For example, applications now exist that present a data dashboard to decision-makers helping them to predict demand and therefore manage staffing levels and other resources to optimise efficiency.

For cognitive occupations, the increased ease of data collection, data accuracy and associated data analytics helps decision-makers to have a deeper understanding of performance and future demand. Improved information flows have the potential to increase the quality of resource allocation and investment across the public sector.

Figure 4.  Actual and projected employment for two example cognitive occupations

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Verdict

The public sector in the UK has recognised the huge opportunity that technology and data have to both achieve savings and improve the quality of the services that they deliver. There are hotbeds of innovation in several areas of the public sector, which are performing well. To mainstream this good practice across the whole public sector will take determination and a co-ordinated approach to:

  • data sharing legislation
  • collect good quality data on well designed, meaningful metrics the true vision for delivery
  • a campaign to build trust with citizens by articulating how greater access to data could improve their experience of public services
  • invest in building data skills in the public sector
  • budget allocation that is flexible enough to recognise both saving opportunities associated with machines substituting human workers and the much greater opportunity for automation to complement human workers to improve service delivery

To find out more about the way automation is set to transform public services, please contact Vimi Grewal-Carr, Managing Partner for innovation at Deloitte, the author of this post - Jemma Venables or read out latest The State of the State report, which provides an independent analysis of the UK public sector through a business lens.

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Vimi Grewal-Carr, Partner, Consulting

Vimi is Managing Partner on the UK Executive with responsibility for Innovation and Delivery Models. She is a Global Lead Client Service partner working with Capital Market & Investment Banking clients to help them address their most critical business issues and transform their organisation in response to significant market events. Her specific expertise includes M&A integration, advising clients on the use of offshoring/near-shoring, building STP solutions and technology integration.

Email  LinkedIn

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Jemma Venables, Innovation Insight, Senior Manager

Jemma is responsible for research and thought leadership for Deloitte’s Innovation practice. Since joining Deloitte last year she has published several pieces of research on automation and the future of work, and supported the wider firm to take this insight to clients. Before joining Deloitte, she was a Senior Advisor at the Cabinet Office where she advised the UK Government on data and social policy.

Email  LinkedIn

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