Automation will claim an estimated 850,000 UK public sector jobs by 2030, according new research.
The annual State of the State Report, from accountants Deloitte and think tank Reform, suggests that the first jobs to go will be in administration and low-skilled operative jobs. Sectors like teaching and policing could also be significantly slimmed down as automation progresses, however.
More than 5.3 million people are currently employed in the public sector, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics,
The process of automation is already underway in the private sector. Three from the world’s ten largest employers are currently replacing their employees with robots or software, but it is yet to have a big impact in the public sector.
While some have warned that automation threatens mass unemployment and greater inequality, the report suggests that a slimmed-down, technology-driven public sector would be more productive and cost-effective, allowing employees to focus more on their primary job tasks. It would certainly represent a significant saving — £17 billion would be trimmed from the public sector wage bill in 2030, compared to 2017.
But which jobs would be most at risk, and which stand to benefit from automation? The research, by Deloitte’s Mike Turley and Reform’s Andrew Haldenby, breaks UK public sector occupations into three broad groups:
1. Administrative or operative roles: activities in this sector are mostly repetitive and predictable. They can be desk-based admin roles, or they can be more physical — hospital porters, for example.
These are the jobs that look set to be largely replaced by automation. Take a look at the projection for job cuts in admin-based local government roles:
That’s a predicted 4,000 jobs from its current level of nearly 90,000.
Turley said: “For administrative roles, a typical example of how automation could replace human labour is where data needs to be manually fed into several systems … Robotic process automation [software that can process clerical work rapidly] now provides a software alternative.”
2. Interactive or frontline roles: these require a high degree of personal interaction — teachers, nurses, and police officers, for example. Most of these roles are fairly resistant to automation, but many have management systems that could be supported by technology.
Take the example of nursing. “In hospitals, sensor technology is starting to be used to monitor patients’ vital signs, which frees up nurse time for interacting with patients more meaningfully,” Turley said.
That’s why the number of nurses is set to flat line to 2030:
3. Cognitive roles: these mostly require complex reasoning and strategic thinking — finance directors, hospital bosses, and senior policemen, for example. These jobs are “highly resistant” to automation, but they could be “enhanced” by such technologies. For example, senior figures in policing could use hi-tech data analytics to make more informed decision-making. Take a look at the projections for job numbers in cognitive roles:
That does represent a slight decline. That is because “some roles with complex elements, such as healthcare practice managers could see a decline in numbers where better information flows have the potential to increase the quality of resource allocation.”
In other words, the increased ease and speed of data collection will slim down the time and resources that have to be designated to any given project.
The report also highlights another financial benefit to public sector automation: it could help the government free up significant amounts of real estate. “While space might need to be adapted for the technology, it is likely a substantial proportion of office space currently occupied by the administrative or operative public sector could be released for sale,” Turley said.
“Disposing those surplus assets could reduce revenue expenditure and generate capital receipts,” he added.
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