Talk to the Chatbot: UK Will Replace ‘Dogsbody’ Civil Servants with AI

chat bot AI
Alex Knight via Unsplash

The UK Cabinet Office is harnessing the skills of artificial intelligence (AI) to cut the size of the civil service and slash its multi-billion pound wages bill.

Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister and Cabinet Office secretary,  announced his plans to expand the use of AI to drive efficiencies across all government and public sector institutions in an address to reporters on Wednesday.

Dowden said adopting AI could be a “significant downward driver” in reducing the civil service headcount, with the government looking to cut 66,000 jobs by the end of the next Spending Review.

His prediction of AI domination comes as the rest of the world rushes down a similar path with mixed results.

For example, allowing AI a role in decisions about welfare abuse and asylum claims would be controversial given the way algorithms have been shown to amplify racial bias, the Financial Times reports.

A childcare benefit scandal in the Netherlands, which forced the government to resign in 2021, involved racial profiling that was “baked into” the design of the self-learning algorithm that flagged potentially fraudulent claims, according to Amnesty International.

Just who chatbots ultimately report to is a further point of debate.

Despite the controversy Dowden is convinced AI is the only way forward.

“It really is the only way, I think, if we want to get on a sustainable path to headcount reduction,” Dowden said, adding:

Remember how much the size of the civil service has grown as a result of the pandemic and EU exit preparedness. We need to really embrace this stuff to drive the numbers down.

By doing those things better, you have to have fewer civil servants doing the administrative tasks that drive these things, which should lead us to savings both on headcount and on overall budget.

Dowden also plans to invest £110m in the Incubator for AI, the Cabinet Office’s AI unit, and in emerging technology to speed up what he described as “dogsbody work”, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, seen here preparing to speak to the media as he arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, sees an expanded role for AI across the UK civil service (Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

File/Days of yore: Striking British civil servants march through Whitehall in 1973 following a mass protest rally against PM Edward Heath’s three-month-old pay and price freeze. The introduction of AI bots into the modern civil service will eliminate any future prospect of  industrial action. ( Getty)

The AI unit, which currently has 30 staff, was announced by Dowden in November as a “crack squad” to help reduce the size of the civil service, with five areas targeted initially: welfare fraud, the asylum backlog, health, education services, and civil service reform.

“By doing those things better, you have to have fewer civil servants doing the administrative tasks that drive these things, which should lead us to savings both on headcount and on overall budget,” Dowden said.

Dowden said the unit has already begun recruiting staff from top tech firms and plans to increase its headcount to 70.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Dowden set out how the Cabinet Office is “putting more AI experts at the heart of government to drive the adoption of AI right across the public sector.”

He said: “Not only will we revolutionise services, we’ll increase productivity, cut efficiencies and save taxpayers millions of pounds.”

Dowden added he is determined that the Cabinet Office “will lead the way in seizing the opportunities presented by these new technologies, whilst guarding against risks.”

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