The public sector is going through unprecedented change – a trend we’ve looked to capture in our annual State of the State reports, which have analysed the many ways this is happening: from digital transformation and people power, to the challenges of productivity and citizen engagement.
This year, though, the rate of change went up several notches, helped on its way by the inexorable rise of technology and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU): the two main themes in our 2016/2017 edition of State of the State. The consequences of both of these developments could be huge for our public services, presenting many opportunities and challenges to be overcome.
The headlines speak for themselves: our research, with academics from Oxford University, suggests that around 88,000 Scottish public sector jobs could be lost to automation over the course of the next 14 years – equivalent to one in six positions, mainly in administrative and operative functions.
While this won’t happen overnight and technology will create new jobs too, it’s a big change – and one we expect to see reflected throughout the economy. Automation will complement rather than replace many other roles. For those in interactive frontline positions, like nurses and police officers, automation will reduce admin and allow people to focus on the human side of their jobs; while those in highly-skilled cognitive roles will use data analytics to inform decision making.
Take, for example, a hospital. Sensing technology is being used to monitor patients’ vital signs, with all the relevant information transferred to a device held by doctors and nurses. This helps medical professionals cut out some administrative tasks, freeing them up to spend more time with patients in the greatest need. Another example would be further use of driverless vehicles on publicly-owned transport networks, currently deployed on London’s DLR.
Realising the potential of automation will require a rethink of how we deliver existing services and the skills to exploit it, as well as the technology to make it happen. Our recommendation is that governments foster digital skills from school age onwards and develop leadership capability in transformation. Equally, digital shouldn’t be seen as the sole domain of the IT department and public services need to be careful not to fall into the trap of digitising existing processes.
Brexit was the other major change this year and, to capture the mood of the nation, we surveyed more than 1,000 people across the UK – 92 of which were in Scotland – to find out what they thought this historic vote would mean for public services. The results were illuminating, revealing a general feeling of trepidation about its impact, albeit with some regional contrasts.
Included in its findings, our survey showed that Scots were among the most pessimistic about Brexit’s impact and more likely than residents of any other part of the UK to think that it will result in tax rises. And, while expecting tax rises, Scottish people were more likely than their counterparts in the rest of the country to support public spending rises.
Furthermore, Scotland was also more supportive of the public sector, businesses, and charities working together to improve cost effectiveness, and more likely to feel public services don’t include them in decisions or offer them a personalised service.
Above all else, this poll highlighted the big challenges currently facing government: while Brexit is high on the political agenda, the public is keen that it doesn’t overshadow the delivery of the services they rely on day-to-day, with the NHS and public transport seen as the most important.
The number of people who believed the government should extend public services, even if that means tax rises, has gone up over the austerity years. But, as other elements of our survey showed, they still expect value for money and accountability.
What’s emerged in clear terms is that our public services need to be re-shaped for the future – some important steps have been taken, but there is still a way to go. Brexit and the rise of automation have brought that fact even further into focus this year. They present significant opportunities, though fraught with challenges, to rethink and rework how we deliver for the 64 million people in the UK.
Angela Mitchell is Head of local public services at Deloitte