8 minute read 21 Oct 2020
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Why AI and the public sector are a winning formula

By Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Consulting Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.

8 minute read 21 Oct 2020

Artificial intelligence can do much more than improve government processes. Applied right, it can deliver better outcomes for society at large.

In brief
  • Public sector organizations see digital as a top priority. Still, the majority have yet to embrace artificial intelligence.
  • AI is already delivering benefits beyond process optimization with the potential to deliver better public services and tackle long-term global challenges. 
  • Senior leadership support, structured approach and an experimental mindset hold the key to embedding AI at scale.

A recent Microsoft study found that two thirds of public sector organizations saw AI as a digital priority. Yet just 4% have been able to scale AI and achieve high outcomes that result in organizational transformation. Senior leadership support, formalized deployment approach and an experimental mindset and culture hold the key to successfully embedding AI at scale. 

Shortly before COVID-19 swept the globe, Microsoft commissioned the EY organization to survey public sector organizations in Western Europe about their adoption of AI technologies.

The survey, Artificial Intelligence in the Public Sector: European Outlook for 2020 and Beyond, showed that two-thirds of respondents saw AI as a digital priority. While many local, regional and national governments recognize the potential of AI, only 4% of surveyed public organizations have scaled it to transform their organization. As a result, just 10% of respondent organizations are using AI to solve complex problems and 9% are using it to significantly change ways of working. And only 12% were using it to create significant value for external stakeholders such as citizens and businesses.

4% of surveyed public organizations have been able to scale AI resulting in organizational transformation.

COVID-19 has driven AI up the public agenda

The COVID-19 crisis has sped up the adoption of AI in the sector. By pushing processes, people and services online, it’s forced local, regional and national governments to lead by example.

In a few short months, they’ve:

  • Digitized on a scale (and at a pace) that might have seemed impossible before
  • Learnt to manage a remote workforce
  • Worked with the private sector to close skills gaps and develop innovative solutions
  • Used AI as a key weapon in the fight against the virus – from educating the public and screening patients to tracking and tracing contacts.
  • These advances will be encouraging for citizens who already wanted governments to match the speed, quality and personalization they get from the private sector.

As we adapt to a new environment, they’ll expect government to build on this progress by becoming truly “digital-first” in their service delivery. But AI also offers the potential to tackle the most complex global challenges the world faces, like climate change and inequality.

AI can be a big part of the solution – but only if governments exploit its full potential

The research showed that adopting AI is expected to bring four main benefits.

  1. Optimizing processes to become more efficient and productive. For example, public administrations can improve their workflows by using AI to route inquires, enabling automation of redundant work and reducing errors.
  2. Transforming services to make them better quality – and develop new ones. In healthcare, for example, AI can improve patient outcomes by analyzing individual patient information to personalized treatment.
  3. Engaging stakeholders so citizens, business and partners have a better experience. In transportation, AI can enhance the user experience for passengers by using historical and real-time data to predict demand and ensure that services are always available at the right time.
  4. Enabling employees to get better results with less effort. For example, virtual assistants can reduce time spent replying to basic inquiries, while predictive analytics enables more informed decision-making.

Taken together, these benefits would equip public sector organizations to move beyond process optimization to deliver world class services and tackle long-term global challenges.

The research revealed that public sector organizations fall into one of 4 categories when it comes to their approach to AI adoption:

  • Emergents (24%) recognize the importance of AI for the future but had yet to begin their AI journey.
  • Adopters (41%) are experimenting with early stage solutions and pilot projects, but AI is not yet embedded across the organization. It is improving processes, not services.
  • Innovators (31%) are embedding AI into their core services and digital strategy. They have clear guidelines and processes in place. Innovators are starting to work across the organization to develop solutions. AI is already improving ways of working as well as services.
  • Transformers (4%) are using AI to transform the way they deliver public services, supported by a structure for monitoring and continuous improvement.

Learning from the transformers

The “transformers” had one crucial thing in common: their leaders truly believed in the power of AI.

Transformers have a high degree of commitment to AI by top management, and AI is considered a key strategic priority (44% of “AI Leaders” vs. 8% of “the rest”). They have stronger commitment across all leadership levels – from political and executive, to projects and line functions. And finally, transformers tend to have a stronger leadership focus on objectives, including better experiences for citizens and employees, quality and risk management, decision-making and optimizing resources.

Therefore, transformers are able to create an environment in which the right skills and structures can develop – from data governance, technology to ethics and culture. But at the end of the day, it’s people who actually make change happen. So, attracting and developing the right talent, and giving them the conditions to thrive, will be vital if organizations are to fully harness the potential of AI.

Transformers have a high degree of commitment to AI by top management, and AI is considered a key strategic priority.

Humans still have a role in the digital state

This leads to an issue that appears in any debate about AI: that these technologies could render humans obsolete. While it’s true some roles may disappear as a result of AI, other new roles to support its’ adoption will emerge such as machine trainers, conversational specialists and automation experts.

The research showed that public sector organizations understand the value of the human factor in realizing the full potential of AI. In fact, AI-mature organizations aim for a blended workforce, in which civil servants and technology co-exist and complement one another.

This means AI technologies doing the work that’s too dull and repetitive, or too high volume or complex. As a result, employees are free to focus on more valuable tasks – or to work in the new roles and functions transformation has created. AI also provides insights to aid their decision-making on complex issues, rather than replacing professional judgement. 

As the digital state becomes a reality, it’ll be the job of governments to make sure their employees have the skills, mindset and connectivity to thrive, including those working remotely. Likewise, they’ll need to upskill citizens to get the most from digital public services and the wider digital economy. And they’ll need to keep working with the private sector to share knowledge and innovate.

Until governments get this right, AI as a real force for change will remain out of reach.

AI in the Public Sector

To explore the Western European survey, visit the Microsoft website.

Explore the data

How to prepare your people for an AI-driven future

  • Make sure your senior leaders act as agents of change. This is about making AI a strategic priority that reflects the organization’s mission, developing a clear strategy and implementation plan, and making investment available.  AI initiatives should be led by influential leaders with a willingness to challenge existing ways of working and a desire to innovate.  They’ll also need to identify and incentivize AI advocates across all leadership levels and functions.
  • Cultivate an AI development mindset in the organization. Encourage and incentivize employees to upskill in hard skills like data science, engineering and domain expertise, and soft skills like innovation, change management and collaboration. Tomorrow’s public employees will need both skillsets if they’re to complement the capability of AI. Support frontline employees in embracing new technologies that change their everyday roles and to understand that the technology is there to work with them, not replace them.
  • Develop a formal approach for managing data and AI tools in a structured way. A good governance approach is needed to provide oversight, direction and accountability for progress. This can include developing guidelines, processes and procedures that set out why, when and how to use these technologies. Ethical frameworks for protecting privacy, mitigating bias and responding to regulatory changes will help build trust among citizens and employees.
  • About the survey

    The study was based on data from 213 survey respondents, as well as interviews with more than 60 leaders in the public sector from 12 Western European countries, within the areas of public administration, health, and transportation.

    Please note that the views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.

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AI can transform the way governments deliver public services to their citizens. Still, it requires digital and robust leadership to make the leap from AI pilot to AI strategy. Only then will governments drive the genuine and lasting digital transformation that delivers on the promise of better outcomes for all.

About this article

By Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Consulting Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.