Over the last couple of months, there has been one constant theme that pops up while talking to senior executives in the government offices where I work. The theme is “Please do not come with innovation ideas; leave us alone to get something finished”. While I have an IT focus and try to inspire these leaders to check innovative IT, they tend to be overwhelmed by the multitude of changes coming their way, and all at the same time.

Last week, I talked to a senior IT officer who simply asked me to come back sometime after 2019 (a gentle way of saying “Not before 2020”), because his IT agenda is full to deliver the top priorities he has agreed with his business leaders.

His boss, the CEO of that agency, states the same but on a broader scale: the minister is pushing to get new services out faster than ever, there is an internal reorganisation, new processes are needed to work with their first digital portal, operating budgets are shrinking and linear cuts do not work anymore because of increasing citizen requests for specialised services. And this goes on top of an overloaded IT transformation agenda that is running years behind to even deliver the basics. The analysis of the new requirements took 9 months to produce a first version, simply because the business was not available to participate.

I’ll give you another, similar example: I am working on a new IT strategy for a smaller – but highly specialised and innovative – agency and recently tried to verify what their position is versus new technology such as the IoT and use of sensors (this agency operates in the waterways). Funnily enough, they were not so interested in this technology; they simply wanted more people. More people on the work floor to cope with the growing number of operational tasks they have to perform. Even here, they feel there is no available time to introduce new technology. Getting the current job done is absorbing all their time.

So, I started to consider whether automation could be a way out? Can we automate a number of basic back office tasks with technology and help release the pressure, so that the agency can focus on changing the business? If so, what processes could we help automate?

Note, I am not talking about basic workflow and business rule engines; I am talking about programs and algorithms that investigate cases and make (simple) decisions. If all data is available in the request for a fishing permit, why still have a civil servant print it out and put an approval stamp on the form? Can we not put an electronic stamp on the form automatically and send it back to the constituent? Only when there is suspicious behaviour, then we can raise the case to the attention of the civil servant. We can even provide a facility that does automated spot checks (using big data algorithms) for attempts of fraud.

At the edge, this could lead to artificial intelligence, although I would not yet go that far in this article. Well, I must reference one article, though, from Computerworld, published on 16 June 2017, following the launch of a virtual help-desk. The council’s head of digital delivery, Tim Kidd, states that he “…absolutely expects AI to take off in the public sector and local government.” For those who want more information, I suggest you visit the conference on AI in the Public Sector on September 17, 2017 in London. I am looking forward to your reflections and notes afterwards.

Before we continue, I am not advocating to reduce civil servants, but rather to allow these people to refocus their overloaded work schedule and free up time for expert advice or cases, assisted by technology that can take on some of the most basic decisions.

Apparently, I am not the only one thinking along these lines. A quick internet search revealed some interesting articles around this subject. “Automation could free up talented public servants to focus on what they do best”, states the title of a recent article – February 2017 – on the Civil Services World (CSW) website. This article makes the case for the UK, and it is interesting to read how they build their arguments.

KPMG makes a great case (and reflection) on automation in its Spring 2017 government magazine. “While intelligent automation presents a significant opportunity to drive transformational efficiencies, governments must proactively address challenges in realising [the] potential to offer better service and renewed job satisfaction for workers,” claims KPMG in the magazine.

Not all projects have been successful on this. Back in 2014, Laserfiche, a vendor for enterprise content management, stated that: “Automated Government Process Takes Longer Than Doing It By Hand”, based on projects that did not deliver value in the US. Interestingly enough, the article starts by raising traditional IT reasons for the failures, like long development times and the lack of change management during roll out.

There are definitely governments out there that have already started using these technologies. So, back to my original thoughts: Is the automation of civil services science fiction or near reality? In which cases would it be good to automate back office processes and free up civil servant time? Share your ideas and let us maybe come up with a prototype together.