Connecting state and local government leaders
In the wake of dramatic technological advances, the workplace of the future will be far different than was envisioned a year ago.
A little more than a year ago, we wrote a series of articles for Route Fifty about the future of government jobs in an effort to help states and localities prepare. About a month later, the phrase “generative AI” came into the public’s consciousness and that future has changed dramatically.
As governments increasingly learn how to take advantage of the information retrieval and communication dimensions of this new technology, the impact on customer service fields, call centers and service requests is likely to be especially profound.
“If a city is using something like this, you may not need a 311 system,” says Ron Holifield, chief executive officer of Strategic Government Resources and interim executive director of the Alliance for Innovation. “And that has implications for the workforce because [generative AI] will route you where you need to go and get the information you need far more efficiently.”
In summer 2022, Ryan Oakes, Accenture’s global health and public services industry practice chair, marveled at the speed with which technological responses to the pandemic had occurred, but wondered whether they would continue at the same rate. “AI has just put what we saw during the pandemic on steroids,” he says now. “It’s opened additional possibilities in the ways that governments can connect data, augment workers and fill gaps in staffing.”
A recent report from Accenture, calculated that across both the public and private sectors, generative AI has the potential for automating and augmenting work hours in 63% of office and administrative support jobs, 59% of business and financial services jobs and 40%, on average, of occupations generally.
There’s little question that generative AI is a game changer, but how fast the game will move is still an unknown as states, cities and counties try to balance the risks of utilizing the potential advances with the hazards of cybersecurity and privacy issues. There are also significant concerns about bias.
Governments will need to be aware of these hazards as they seize on generative AI to power their call centers and 311 lines. This has become an even more alluring opportunity as governments realize that they can avoid troublesome misinformation on the internet by confining the uses of generative AI to “controlled” sources of information, like the entities’ own websites.
But even when controlled sources are used, there can still be “missing content on a website and some content is out of date,” says Parth Shah, chief executive officer and founder of Polimorphic, a producer of advanced generative AI services. That's why governments using generative AI tools are beginning to realize they have to pay extra attention to keeping their websites accurate and up to date.
Shah has spoken in recent months at ICMA and Alliance for Innovation conferences, emphasizing the importance of limiting searches to controlled generative AI sources. “Controlled content is so important because seeing everything on the internet leads to misinformation and the potential of bias,” he says.
Andy Pederson, the village manager in Bayside, Wisconsin, with about 4,400 residents, began using controlled generative AI on his government’s website in early November with the help of Polimorphic. He is enthusiastic about the possibilities, and though he’s not certain what the impact on government jobs will be, “this makes things more user-friendly for everybody involved, not only the general public but also the staff as well.”
As Pederson sees it, the new tool has become “a little bit of a succession plan and training module” for his employees. He can see immediate ways in which generative AI has changed the way his workers get information, produce documents and learn about the small government they serve.
There’s More Than Just AI in the Future
Technological advancements are not the only force driving job changes. Workforce shortages are as well, especially as problems in hiring persist, staff vacancies continue, competition from the private sector grows and aging employees retire. A government that has 100 staffers now is likely facing the retirement of as many as a third of them in the next 10 years, says Shah.
With advances brought on by artificial intelligence, robotics and a range of technologies that improve the efficiency of services, there are a slew of routine jobs that will no longer exist or exist in far fewer numbers. That makes the future of jobs in the public sector extremely dependent on a much more aggressive focus on training, including apprenticeships and other skill-based efforts that also expand work opportunities to populations that have been blocked from jobs in the past by job experience and college degree requirements.
As Route Fifty recently reported, at least 16 states have taken steps to move away from more traditional degree requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One of the states that has been most active in preparing for the future of government jobs is Colorado, where the Office of the Future of Work was first set up in 2019 and tasked with preparing the state for work transitions. While much of its mission is focused on the general Colorado workforce, it collaborates on a parallel effort within the Department of Personnel Administration to build skill-based learning programs for the state’s own employees.
Currently, the task within the personnel administration is to work directly with all 23 of the state’s executive branch agencies on a vast array of programs and techniques to build apprenticeships (both registered and informal), internships, curriculum-based learning programs and experiential-based learning. “We’re intentional about creating sustainable programs that can cast a wide net towards our community,” says Melissa Walker, the director of Workforce Solutions for the state.
Hiring changes in Colorado and other entities are accompanied by a commitment to professional development and career growth. This kind of training was often cited as a crucial need in last year’s future of government jobs series along with the warning that training programs have always been dependent on the availability of financial and time resources, particularly given workforce shortages.
The Need for Caution
As efforts at automation continue to develop, one of the other major needs is caution as jobs change and new technologies are introduced. Generative AI, in particular, presents dangers as well as opportunities. As governments experiment with the new technology, they will be faced with sales pitches from vendors who may see a striking opportunity in this exciting new world but lack sufficient background and knowledge to provide necessary guardrails.
“We can take advantage of technologies like generative AI without necessarily trying to introduce it into the most complicated or complex environments in government,” Accenture’s Oakes says, citing the importance of governance policies that are accessible, provide transparency to algorithms and communicate clearly.
“It’s still very early, early on,” he adds. “On Tuesdays, I’m wildly enthusiastic about the potential for generative AI to make this a better world, and on Wednesdays, I wake up in a sweat, absolutely terrified.”