A robot takeover? Why the future of government is about innovation not machines

By Vicki Sellick | 19 August 2019

Ask most people how government will work in the future and technologies like artificial intelligence, robots and automation, are usually top of the list.

And whilst machine learning and new technologies will bring about huge advances in government’s ability to analyse trends, predict needs and deploy support quickly; much of what makes a government work well is locked up in the personal approaches of those at the heart of it. The skilled judgement of a social worker on how to finely balance multiple complicated needs. The insight of a job centre  worker that inspires a jobseeker to retrain. The vision of a planner to create thriving urban spaces for different generations to meet and play. Government is at its heart a human to human service that a machine could never replace.

Whilst it's unlikely that a robot army is coming to take every job, there is no doubt that government - local and central - is changing. And the 21st-century public servant is therefore expected to be adept at change. The service of today will be different in 2025 and different again in 2030. Governments of all forms need staff who know how to innovate.

This adjustment may seem daunting and that’s why at Nesta, we’ve launched a survey for local government staff to understand how those at the frontline feel about innovation in your role. Everything from how supported by your boss you feel when you suggest a new way of working, to whether your workplace has a culture that embraces change, to which innovation approaches you feel confident in.

Our hunch is that being an innovator inside or alongside government can feel isolating in part because there is no manual to follow and few mentors to guide. Whereas entrepreneurs in the private sector are almost overwhelmed with advice and finance, government innovators have fewer support structures, finance options and mentors to draw from.

Nesta’s experience from partnering with thousands of public servants in local and central government in the last decade suggests that many innovators in government lean on just a few tools, rather than picking the best one for the job. They learn how to iterate a new idea through prototyping and so forget what experimentalism can bring; or they feel confident in a new form of community engagement and so use it repeatedly at the expense of new techniques in digital democracy. Combine this with an ever increasing workload and the desire to reach out and try something new becomes extremely difficult to do.

Yet there are many ways to bring bold  ideas to life and proven tools to help you do so.  Some of the tools exploit new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics. Others harness insights from new sources, including frontline workers and citizens, like 100 Day Challenges, collective intelligence and people powered public services. Some use new methods of financing innovation like challenge prizes, matched crowdfunding and loans to public servants. We hope our forthcoming publication 20 Tools for Innovating in Government, A handbook for practitioners (Nesta, Sept 2019) will go some way in helping to do this.

I hope that you will find a few minutes to complete our survey and tell us how you feel about making change in your role. We’ll use the results to shape conversations at our upcoming Government Innovation Summit in September, and our work this year (plus there’s also an opportunity to enter a prize draw if you needed further incentive!).

Greek philosophy suggests “change is the only constant in life”. That feels more true in government than ever before as new technologies allow us to reimagine government services for the future. But we’re not interested in the machines themselves. It’s the skilled public servants, who know how to innovate, that we want to champion.

Vicki Sellick is executive Director of Programmes at Nesta


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