AI: The future for local government

By Heather Jameson | 08 November 2023

We are, according to tech billionaire Elon Musk, facing the ‘most disruptive force in history’. We are poised on the precipice of the next instalment of the technological revolution: Artificial Intelligence.

There has been much hype surrounding advances in AI, from the bots destroying humanity to Mr Musk’s predictions of a workless utopia. Last week’s international summit saw Rishi Sunak attempt to convene international powers to focus on a basic ethical framework – with mixed success.

But the Prime Minister is not alone in grappling with what AI may mean in the future. Last month, Penna and The MJ gathered a group of local government experts for a round table on what the new technology may mean for councils.

The first thing to remember is this is not science fiction; it is a new and rapidly growing reality. We are reminded: ‘It is here. It is starting to be embedded into all sorts of applications that we are using already.’

Indeed, one council representative explains they are already seeing AI-generated challenges to parking fines – but that is just the tip of the iceberg. ‘It’ll happen on SEND appeals. It’ll happen on virtually everything we do… so if we are not geared up to respond in a similar fashion we’re just going to be swamped by our own residents,’ they suggest.

Another participant poses a scenario, a future where the public communicates using AI, and councils respond using AI. ‘If we automate the letters and the emails on both sides, why do we need emails and letters?’ we are asked.

It is a reminder that the impact of AI will be more than the technology itself; it will mean a whole rethink of processes, transforming the entire way local government – and the world – operates.

But let’s start, as Mr Sunak has, with the ethics.

The Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation (Socitm) is at the table. They have done a lot of work on embedding ethics into public sector AI systems early on.

AI, they suggest, is not a technology issue but a leadership and governance issue. Local government is all about people and places, and introducing AI to the mix is no different – it is still about delivering services for people and places, but it will require training staff to understand the security issues.

We are told: ‘If you put information into ChatGPT… that information is in the public domain. So you don’t want to put in personal information…. I don’t know whether people really understand that.’

One debater gave senior staff ethics training but adds: ‘On reflection, I need to be providing that ethics training to all my workforce. Anyone who is dealing with data… anybody who has got that frontline presence. They all need to understand because they’re going to use technology, they’re going to use data.’

It is the frontline staff – social workers handling personal information in particular – that really need to be thinking about it.

‘Without any knowledge whatsoever, one of our social workers – trying to do the right thing – is going to get us into a whole lot of trouble because she’s put some information in the public domain. That’s my biggest risk and we have such a lot of data.’

Again, this is not a future technology, it is a risk for now. People are already using AI without realising it. And while we should not be afraid of it, ‘we need to go into it with our eyes open,’ we are told. ‘There are massive data security and cybersecurity risks.’

There is a danger too, that people ‘confuse ethics with legal’, but they are not the same thing – just because it is within the law, doesn’t mean it is right.

Diversity and inclusivity are also issues with AI. ‘We need to make sure that it’s not introducing bias,’ one debater says. But that means the people using the systems need to be as diverse as possible, reflective of communities, to make sure there is no bias or assumptions introduced.

One council chief explains: ‘Fundamentally, we’re trying to apply those public service values that we’ve all grown up with to a new technology, keeping that and our residents at the heart of AI.’

One of our council chiefs suggests the biggest challenge facing public services is being able to recruit the staff they need. They say: ‘The brilliant thing about AI means we can hopefully transfer all the things AI can do to machines, and we can reserve the very scarce resource we’ve got in human beings to do the things only human beings can do.

‘I think this is almost a wholly positive thing.’

It is a vision that runs counter to the fears being raised by staff, who are worried AI will mean they lose their jobs.

One of our local government experts says they had to admit to staff their jobs may not exist. ‘I said: “I can’t guarantee employment, but I can guarantee you will be employable. Our skills need to change… but we can train you to be a developer”.’

Much as Mr Musk’s work-free world is a nice idea, we still need people for now. Another debater raises a key point for a sector dominated by social care: ‘We cannot lose sight of those processes that require that human agency and interaction.’

So how will local government use AI? One debater says they have been data cleansing. Another describes a pilot used to deal with housing complaints in an effort to understand where the housing service needs to improve.

Another agrees they will need to develop a pipeline of staff to work with AI, but we are not there yet. ‘For now, we don’t all need our own internal AI experts, we buy that in… it has to be part of your transformation of your workforce.’

It is, they say, like barristers. Local government would love to have the in-house staff, but there is not the budget.

When it comes to jobs across society, our debaters are positive too. One asks: ‘Aren’t we between the old world and the new world? It is daunting, not knowing what skills will be required in future.’

While the advent of the internet created whole new opportunities – the ability to disrupt markets or become an entrepreneur in your own home – AI puts us on the precipice of another workforce revolution.

One debater suggests: ‘Transformative technology presents a whole raft of entrepreneurial opportunities for local people and businesses in our places. We need to think about how we can invest in attracting these kinds of businesses and start to scale up the entrepreneurs locally.

‘How can we leverage the disruptions these technologies are causing and make them benefits [to the local economy]?’

Most of all, local government needs to find a way to make new technologies ‘mainstream’. One debater asks: ‘How do we build confidence and capability that transformative technologies, digital capabilities, are here to stay?

‘We’ve got to stop focusing on the technologies. We’ve got to focus on the wicked problems. What is it we’re trying to fix and how can we use these capabilities to fix those?’

It is not about AI, it is about leadership – technology is just the tool – and local government will still be trying to fix the same problems it always has, with or without the help of AI.

AI through a societal, personal and organisational lens

One of our round table guests suggests AI cannot be looked at in isolation. It needs to be viewed through a societal, personal and organisational lens. That, they claim, is what local government does.

Society, they propose, ‘has been incredibly impacted not only by AI in almost every part of our world, but now generative AI, the open AI,’ we are told.

ChatGPT reached 100 million monthly active users two months after launch, one of our technology experts explains, possibly the biggest product launch ever. Of those, 62% were millennials – there is a generational divide happening in front of us.

On an individual level, AI opens a host of personal issues and opportunities. The ability to reprogramme the brain, to help people who have lost limbs or lost their sight. But what happens if it goes wrong?

As driverless cars become more reliable, will we continue to allow people to drive in the future? And what about education? Do we continue with our current education system which is already ‘defunct’, designed in a Victorian era, with increasingly little relevance.

If the education system is altered, what does that then mean for professional training?

For local government, as organisations it can open conversations with residents – all without the need to answer the phone, at a massively reduced cost.

‘How do we combine this with other technology… and do something really cool?’ we are asked. As Microsoft launches its new Co-pilot software, how will AI be integrated with it and other systems?

Co-pliot, a fellow debater suggests, has the potential to create a massive acceleration in how we use technology in the space of just months.

And how does local government make the space to think about all this when it is a struggle just to keep going right now? ‘AI is not going to solve everything,’ we are told and it certainly will not boost the budgets and create financial stability overnight.

Participants at The MJ / Penna round table

Mike Jackson - Richmond Upon Thames and Wandsworth LBCs

Julie Tower - Penna

Paul Neville - Enfield LBC

Nadira Hussain - SOCITM

Mark Lumley - Hounslow LBC

Toby Fox - Inner Circle Consulting

Jabed Hussain - Achieving for Children

Tracie Langley - Cornwall Council

Omid Shiraji - Newham LBC

Rehana Remesh - Brent LBC

Dawar Hashmi - Penna

Heather Jameson - The MJ (chair)

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