Connecting state and local government leaders
Despite tech transforming government, public employees aren’t concerned for their jobs. Maybe because it’s letting them focus on the work they signed up for.
State and local government employees are mostly confident that technology involving automation and artificial intelligence won’t replace their jobs—at least for now.
While these kinds of technology are changing the way government works, experts say that the new tech is mostly enabling workers to do the real mission they signed up for in the first place, and helping them to avoid getting bogged down in repetitive, button-pushing-style tasks.
And some types of automation hold the promise of allowing government agencies to maintain or boost productivity, without adding to burdens to already tight budgets and limited staff.
“We see these tools as ways to enable the employees who currently perform this work to be able to spend more time on strategic and value-added activities, while improving turnaround times or wait times,” said Sharon Minnich, secretary of administration for Pennsylvania.
“We also see it as a way to accomplish improved customer service with our existing workforce while giving our employees an opportunity to grow professionally.”
Route Fifty’s recent 2018 Management Survey sheds some light on how state and local employees view emerging government tech.
“About two-thirds of respondents agreed that “new technologies are having a transformative impact on the structure of my organization,” but less than one-in-five thought “people in my organization are worried that their jobs will be replaced by technology.”
“Jobs will change with automation, but they’ll change for the better because people will be able to focus on the mission and the core values of why they took a public sector job, and, hopefully reduce the burden of the administrative task rote work that all of us have to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” Libby Bacon, a partner in Deloitte’s human capital practice, told Route Fifty.
“It changes what people do but it doesn’t get rid of jobs; it doesn’t change the workforce landscape,” she added.
In Pennsylvania, Minnich’s team is just ramping up a pilot program that will use “virtual agents” to support employees at the state government human resources service center, as well as public-facing call centers.
Amy Hille Glasscock, a senior policy analyst with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers who focuses on emerging technologies, says her organization’s members are implementing automation initiatives similar to the ones in Pennsylvania.
States including North Carolina and Mississippi are using chatbots as a means to help citizens navigate government services, while letting employees do “the human part of their job instead of the repetitive part” that “they probably don’t enjoy as much anyway,” according to Glasscock.
While repetitive tasks seem to be what artificial intelligence and automation are generally helping with for now, that doesn’t mean it’s not getting increasingly sophisticated.
The company Everlaw specializes in machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to streamline one of the more time-intensive parts of legal work, discovery, which largely involves sifting through documents looking for information relevant to a case.
Everlaw Vice President Jon Kerry-Tyerman claims their software can, on average, cut the workload of the discovery process in half. He said that the labor of reviewing documents, piece-by-piece, accounts for about 75 percent of the spending for discovery.
“If you can save half of your money where you’re spending 75 percent of your money, then that’s a pretty significant savings,” Kerry-Tyerman said.
About 90 percent of state attorneys general currently use Everlaw. Kerry-Tyerman said, in many situations, people who were once bogged down in discovery are now able to advance.
He pointed out two “counterbalanced” trends.
One is that automation is making once arduous tasks more efficient. The other is that automation becoming is becoming more accessible to regular employees.
Kerry-Tyerman says this means that people who had previously “pigeonholed themselves” with deep understanding of a narrow task now “are much more empowered to apply their expertise—whatever it is—across other areas of the organization.”
OpenGov CEO Zac Bookman echoed that view in an interview with Route Fifty, telling us technological efficiency is not going to result in major cuts to the public sector workforce. His company provides a cloud-based tool that helps streamline data and information for state and local governments.
“I do not believe that significant knowledge jobs are at risk in the governments we work with as a result of our technology or any new technology on the horizon in roughly the next generation,” Bookman said. “Once they get their people the right tools, they’re able to do more and better work.”
Are We Prepared For The Change?
Teaching employees these the skills required to implement and use new tech is no small task. Deloitte’s Bacon believes changing the workplace norms “from a world of training to a world of lifelong learning” needs to be a top priority.
“It’s an evolution,” Bacon said. “It’s no small task when you think of the size of the workforce they’re dealing with, but that shift is happening.”
That’s just the first step, though. In Bacon’s view, to truly become able to adapt to technology, the very structure of government will need to change.
“When you look at successful organizations that are really adopting technology and being digital—and not just adopting automation projects—the reason for success is the environment and the culture that they have created, as well as a more ‘flat organization,’” she said. “And this concept of a network of teams, where people could work across teams or are more agile.”
Everlaw’s Kerry-Tyerman thinks as the applications of AI and machine learning continue to grow, people will begin to take notice and anxiety about job losses may start to build. “I think AI has been hyped for so long, that I think people began to become immune to it,” he said. “And now, we’re reaching a point where it’s actually happening.”
But Bookman looks at how previous technology advancements have played out and is optimistic. “Everyone said video and teleconferencing was going to eliminate travel, and yet we travel significantly more,” he said. “Including as a result of being able to connect with people.”
Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.