Almost 250,000 public sector workers could lose their jobs to robots over the next 15 years, according to a new report which claims machines would be more efficient and save billions of pounds.
Reform, a right-of-centre thinktank, says websites and artificial intelligence “chat bots” could replace up to 90% of Whitehall’s administrators, as well as tens of thousands in the NHS and GPs’ surgeries, by 2030 – saving as much as £4bn a year.
Even nurses and doctors could fall victim to the march of the machines, which the report says can outperform humans at some diagnoses and routine surgical procedures, and are more efficient at collecting information.
The report argues that public services should become more flexible by embracing a gig economy where workers support themselves through a variety of flexible jobs acquired through online platforms.
In remarks that seem set to infuriate unions, a Reform press release says: “Public services can become the next Uber, using the gig economy to employ locum doctors and supply teachers.”
Few complex roles, it suggests, will be able to resist the move towards automation, with the aim that public services will eventually become “diamond-shaped”, as both frontline and strategic roles are replaced by computers.
“Twenty percent of public-sector workers hold strategic, ‘cognitive’ roles,” it says. “They will use data analytics to identify patterns – improving decision-making and allocating workers most efficiently.
“The NHS, for example, can focus on the highest risk patients, reducing unnecessary hospital admissions. UK police and other emergency services are already using data to predict areas of greatest risk from burglary and fire.”
Such “contingent labour” platforms, it says, could suit hospitals and schools as an alternative to traditional agency models, as well as organisations which experience seasonal peaks in demand such as HMRC at the end of the tax year.
Reform also calls for a shift towards a more private sector-style organisational culture, suggesting that “shared kitchens and feedback boards [will] enable the spontaneous interactions that will support a new culture of public service innovation”.
The new approach to recruitment would bring the profile of public sector workers closer to that of the private sector, which has three times as many under-24s in its workforce.
The report also highlights the scope for increased automation in policing through crowd-monitoring drones and facial recognition technology, although it acknowledges the concerns involved in holding people’s images.
Alexander Hitchcock, the report’s co-author, 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.”
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