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Robots and computers could replace 250,000 public sector jobs by 2030

6 Feb 2017 By Marianne Calnan

Think tank says few complex roles will be able to resist automation, as it calls for ‘new approach’ to workforce design

Around a quarter of a million jobs in the public sector could be replaced by computers and robots in the next 15 years, research from think tank Reform has found.

The study revealed that using websites and artificially intelligent ‘chat bots’ could improve efficiency in workplaces and save billions of pounds. Reform argues that employers and employees in the public sector should embrace ‘gig economy’ style contingent working as an alternative to using agency workers in hospitals and schools, and to help meet seasonal demand for workers, such as HMRC’s increase in workflow at the end of the tax year.

It has also revealed that technology such as robots and computers is capable of removing the need for some 130,000 Whitehall administrators – around 90 per cent of the total administrative workforce – by 2030. This could save £2.6bn a year in payroll costs.

Alexander Hitchcock, co-author of the report, said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively. But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”

Reform said a further 90,000 NHS administrative and 24,000 GP receptionist jobs could be automated in the same way, saving an additional £1.7bn. The changes could also affect around a third of nursing tasks, such as distributing non-intravenous medication and information collection.

Even doctors’ roles could even be affected by the introduction of more sophisticated technology; the report emphasised that machines are already proving more effective at diagnosing lung cancer and performing routine surgery procedures.

The report, which is based on evaluations of recent government approaches to workforce design, as well as expert interviews and analysis of public and private data, concluded that a new approach to working is needed because “public services should deliver outcomes that matter to users, and meet expectations of interacting via technology”.

Few complex roles, it suggested, will be capable of resisting the move towards automation, with the aim that public services will eventually become “diamond shaped”, with both frontline and strategic roles replaced by computers. It recommended that workplaces vary their internal hierarchies so there are fewer management layers, and begin introducing new recruitment patterns, including targeting non-traditional entry routes such as apprenticeships and digital contingent-labour platforms, to attract a wider skill base into their workforces.

Chas Moloney, director of Ricoh UK, said employers and workers who may be affected by this “rising tide of technology” should focus on skills development and training for employees adapting to these newer ways of working.

“There can be no complacency when it comes to improving the digital dexterity of the workforce,” he said. “It’s vital that every effort is made to ensure workers are equipped with the necessary skills to thrive in new digital working environments. Change brings with it seismic shifts to workplace culture, with digitisation and automation becoming core elements of public sector operations.”

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