15 minute read 8 Sep 2020
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How intelligent automation paves the way to better public services

By Neil MacLean

EY UK&I Finance Consulting Leader; EY Global Business Services Leader

Over two decades of experience of delivering major finance, GBS and technology-enabled transformation programs. A qualified accountant (FCCA).

15 minute read 8 Sep 2020

Intelligent automation offers public sector organizations a way to do more with less, freeing up employees to focus on serving the citizen.

In brief
  • Using intelligent automation as a strategic tool enables more efficient delivery of services.
  • This article outlines four behavioral and cultural factors that organizations must consider to experience the benefits of intelligent automation.

This article is part of our Digital State series.

Intelligent automation (IA) offers tremendous potential for public sector organizations to accelerate transformation and unleash value for their employees and the citizens they serve. This is more important than ever in light of the new challenges and pressured finances brought about by COVID-19.

Understandably, there has been some wariness about IA on the part of governments, which are concerned about the possible impact on employment. However, these fears are largely unfounded. When used as a strategic tool, IA allows public sector bodies to keep up with increasing demands on services by delivering them more efficiently. It removes the burden of administrative tasks so that talented and dedicated employees can focus on what really matters — serving the citizen.

There are other benefits too. IA helps organizations use data to generate insights that augment professional decision-making. Capacity and resources are released that can be reinvested in innovation and in enhancing public value.

The successful implementation of automation is a complex process and technology alone is not the answer. It’s the combined power of people working with technology that will deliver the greatest value. This article examines the four key behavioral and cultural factors that public sector organizations must consider in order to unlock the full benefits of IA:

  1. Aligning digital plans with overall vision and purpose
  2. Adapting culture and working practices
  3. Developing the right skills and capabilities
  4. Fostering trust in automation

What do we mean by intelligent automation?

IA can be thought of as providing “digital workers,” which perform tasks in four broad areas. First is the area of machine learning and artificial intelligence, where the digital workers can provide algorithm-driven insights, unstructured-to-structured translation and a big data focus. The second area is chatbots, which are communication-focused, use predictive behavior and respond to inquiries and requests via text and voice. The third area is robotic process automation, or RPA, where the workers can enter data into systems, process data, communicate using emails, texts and social media, and make rules-based decisions. And the fourth and final area is cognitive analytics, where the workers provide data manipulation, data visualization and predictive analytics. Together, these functions add up to a virtual workforce that can do much of the routine, time-consuming labor of running public services.

The benefits of a virtual workforce

Increasing efficiency and productivity: With budgets under pressure, organizations can improve productivity by automating high-volume tasks and manual processes. RPA and machine-learning tools, for example, may be cheaper, faster and more accurate than humans at tasks involving large amounts of data, complex calculations, or repetitive tasks with clear rules. Public services have many common processes that can be managed and automated centrally for greater consistency and efficiency. The resulting economies of scale create savings that can be reinvested in the organization.

Improving the citizen experience: IA can help organizations improve the day-to-day experience for citizens and achieve much better outcomes. It can also aid the design and delivery of more user-centric services by enabling the end-to-end, seamless digitization of services, from primary interface to back-end processes. Public sector bodies around the world are using IA to answer queries, route requests, auto-fill documents, process payments and handle complaints. “Tell us once” services ensure that people don’t have to refill their personal data online for different public services. Virtual assistants, or chatbots, allow citizens to access services when it suits them and receive speedier responses, boosting satisfaction levels.

Improving the employee experience and offering more personal support: IA allows employees to work in more purposeful roles by freeing up their time to focus on what really matters — human connection. Automation doesn’t displace a team or service but complements it so that it is truly user-centric. For example, if nurses and social workers are relieved of repetitive, administrative tasks, they can dedicate more time to caring for patients or helping vulnerable children and families. The result is higher morale and job satisfaction, and better outcomes for citizens.

Using data to improve decision-making: Public sector organizations hold vast amounts of information from many sources, in formats including text, images and voice. But because there’s so much data, and because it is often unstructured, unlocking its value can be difficult. IA can sift through and interpret this data to extract insights that can augment human decision-making. Predictive models can be created that identify risks earlier and enable more targeted services. Delivering the right services at the right time and place can improve preventative action and reduce pressure on downstream services.

4 steps to unlock the full benefits of IA

1. Aligning digital plans with overall vision and purpose

Initiating, launching and deploying IA initiatives requires strong support and commitment from leaders, who need to have a clear understanding of how the technology can be used strategically to help meet broader organizational goals. Leaders must start by considering the big picture — the overall vision of the organization. This means clearly articulating what value they need to create and for whom, then developing the solutions and technologies that help deliver that value.

New leadership capabilities and mindsets are crucial in a rapidly changing world: collaboration, creativity, curiosity and adaptability are critical. Senior executives are ideally positioned to sponsor automation programs. But beyond top-level support, the most effective IA programs are governed by steering committees made up of senior stakeholders from across the organization, including strategy, IT, finance, human resources, procurement and communications. These will provide program direction, oversight and sponsorship, and achieve alignment across the entire organization. The IA team should be led by influential individuals with an ability to build networks and relationships across functions, a willingness to challenge existing behaviors and mindsets, and a desire to innovate. They must help forge genuine partnerships between the digital team and the administrative and operational teams responsible for service delivery.

A clear strategy and implementation plan is needed to translate the vision into reality. In creating this plan, public sector organizations can learn from private-sector innovators who have effectively managed digital transformation. The strategy should set out the scope and purpose of the new technologies, and their potential to deliver public value. It should define the roles and organizational structure to develop and scale the use of IA across the enterprise; assess, monitor and facilitate mitigation of any risks associated with the deployment of automation (including data integrity, security and privacy protection, and ethical and legal ramifications); and establish ongoing mechanisms to evaluate progress and measure benefits.

The strategy also needs to address the rapid advances in technology and impact on jobs. As some tasks are eliminated and new tasks and roles emerge, a more sophisticated approach to workforce planning is needed over short-, medium- and longer-term horizons.

2. Adapting culture and working practices

A resilient culture is needed to manage and sustain significant, rapid change, because it is the workforce that will be responsible for executing the strategy. To succeed, the culture needs to be ready to embrace new technologies that change everyday roles and work. When employees feel confident and understand that the technology is there to work with them, not replace them, they’re more likely to start pitching ideas for the automation pipeline.

The first step is to make sure employees understand the vision and what is possible, so that they can relate the technology to their own pain points. With the right approach, IA can be shown to complement and augment the work people do. For staff, this means more time to focus on more meaningful tasks; to unleash their talents in value added areas; and potentially provide a better work/life balance.

To be able to adapt, people need to be ahead of any change and actively engaged in taking the steps that will secure their ongoing employability, such as continuing learning and development, managing change and career planning in an uncertain world.

The benefits of IA in helping agencies achieve their mission needs to be clearly communicated to different stakeholder groups. Employees are more likely to cooperate if they understand how the change will affect them and what part they are expected to play in achieving the vision. There must be frequent and transparent communication to mitigate employees’ concerns, encourage adoption of new ways of working, and drive alignment across the enterprise. This should allow for two-way communication rather than just top-down. Leadership teams can only steer the ship in the right direction if they have input and intelligence from all parts of the organization. A crucial element of this is seeking input from service users on the design of the IA solution, to ensure that it meets their needs and is user-friendly.

A detailed action plan should outline the transition to revised roles and responsibilities, and the development and redeployment activities for those affected by the automation. This must cater to the skills, motivations and needs of different workforce segments.

3. Developing the right skills and capabilities

Public sector leaders must ensure that the workforce of the future has the right skills and capabilities to deliver IA and to adapt to the new roles that are being created. This is one of the most challenging areas for the public sector, as many of the required skills are in short supply.

A greater emphasis on workforce planning, training and capability building, and recruitment programs to attract talent is essential to help organizations adapt to future requirements. They must first analyze the skill-sets of existing employees to identify the gaps, and then design a talent strategy to help fill those gaps.

Recruiting and retraining talent will be a particular priority — and a challenge when it comes to planning ahead for jobs that don’t yet exist. Research from Gartner, for example, predicts that by 2023, half the roles that public sector chief information officers will oversee do not exist in public sector IT today.¹ New roles will be needed to support the introduction of emerging technologies such as AI and the internet of things (IoT). These will include machine trainers, conversational specialists and automation experts. They will gradually replace the specialists in legacy technologies.

Organizations will also need to consider training employees to work with the new technologies. In this regard, learning experiences will shift towards self-directed learning, where knowledge-sharing and learning networks are combined with new technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality. Organizations must be prepared to provide these solutions to accelerate employee development and present enhanced on-demand learning opportunities.²

Another priority is to upskill people whose time is redeployed, so they can take on tasks further up the value chain. This is work that requires lateral thinking, empathy, collaboration and creativity — all things at which humans continue to outperform even the most sophisticated AI program. Much of the training that is offered today is skewed towards hard skills. But these soft skills will be increasingly valuable. With the savings in recruitment costs and efficiency resulting from automation, the retraining of staff and cost of redeploying into new roles should be affordable in the short-term. And with an aging workforce and rising skill shortages, it could prove a valuable long-term investment.

4. Fostering trust in automation

With key elements of the automation and people strategies aligned, organizations must consider how to maximize the transformative potential of their IA program. There are huge opportunities to bring datasets together and glean insights that would not previously have been possible. But the proliferation in the scale and availability of data raises questions about the extent to which organizations can share and use the data they have while remaining within the boundaries of ethicality and public concerns over data privacy and security.

Organizations will need to build trust with different stakeholders, including employees, citizens, suppliers and partners. This should extend to the strategic purpose of the system, the integrity of data collection and management, and the rigor of techniques used to monitor system and algorithmic performance. To build trust, it is vital for each stakeholder group to have confidence in the purpose, integrity and security of these technologies and to understand that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Transparency is key for the public to have trust in IA algorithms, so that everyone understands what factors decisions are based on. The IA system should also have a clear line of accountability to an individual, who is able to explain the system’s decision framework. But in complex and sensitive cases, such as support for vulnerable individuals, it is still essential to combine the analytical power of the machine with the context and understanding of a human case worker who can make a final judgement.

In any IA project, a good governance approach is needed to provide oversight, direction and accountability for progress. A multidisciplinary advisory board, reporting to and/or governed by the senior leadership, can provide independent guidance on ethical considerations in artificial intelligence development. The board can capture perspectives that go beyond a purely technological focus. Design policies and standards for the development of artificial intelligence, including a code of conduct and design principles, can help define IA governance and accountability mechanisms.

As with existing manual processes, protocols should be created to govern the sharing and use of data across different systems. These agreements define the purpose and basis for sharing, and provide details about storage, security, retention and deletion. Reviews of datasets should also be scheduled at key points throughout the development of the project to ensure that the data being used is relevant, significant and proportionate. Organizations that embrace these good practices in ethical design and governance will be better equipped to mitigate risks, safeguard against harmful outcomes and, most importantly, build the trust that is needed to maximize the potential benefits of IA.


Through IA, public sector organizations have the opportunity to radically rethink the way they deliver services to the public and find new ways to tackle national, regional and local issues. Automation in the public sector can drive a broad range of benefits far beyond cost savings: a better citizen experience and improved outcomes; more efficient operations; higher job satisfaction for public employees who are able to take on more purposeful roles; and using data to improve decision-making.

Public sector leaders need to take a strategic and transformational approach to manage the change that goes beyond the technology implementation. They must align their digital plans with the organization’s overall vision and purpose; make the behavioral and cultural changes needed to manage the transformation; communicate the case for change and allay fears about the possible impact on jobs; develop the skills and capabilities to deliver automation and to adapt to the new roles that are being created; and instill a sense of trust in the use of data that will maximize the transformative potential of the automation program.

In the early phases of automation, organizations will often deploy proof of concepts; however, they need to move beyond this stage if they are to realize significant benefits. By scaling up automation, organizations can maximize the value. To do this, they need to think to the longer term, develop a clear strategy and establish central governance and expertise, for example through setting up a center of excellence.

The IA revolution is fast paced and the challenge for public sector organizations is to stay current and adopt new technologies while remaining rooted in their core values. This has never been more relevant. COVID-19 has brought great uncertainty, but by embracing new technologies, public sector organizations can increase their resilience, unlock value and provide the best possible services for their citizens.


A digital revolution is under way, driven by intelligent automation (IA) in all its forms. This change offers public sector organizations new opportunities to transform the way they work and deliver better outcomes for citizens.

About this article

By Neil MacLean

EY UK&I Finance Consulting Leader; EY Global Business Services Leader

Over two decades of experience of delivering major finance, GBS and technology-enabled transformation programs. A qualified accountant (FCCA).