What the Future of Artificial Intelligence in Government Could Look Like

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Cognitive technologies could free up hundreds of hours of government employees’ time.

William D. Eggers is the executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. Dr. Peter Viechnicki is a strategic analysis manager and data scientist with the center. This piece is adapted from their new study, How much time and money can AI save government?

Institutions run on data. Government agencies are no exception, and today this requires endless staff hours spent inputting, processing and sharing information across systems. The work needs to get done, so someone has to peck away at a keyboard, right?

Not necessarily.

Artificial intelligence—or AI—holds the promise of reducing or even eliminating much of the time-intensive, administrative work going on in government today. Staff resources can be freed up to do more meaningful work, giving people time to focus on creative projects and deal directly with citizens.

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How much time could be freed up by technologies powered by AI?

Official estimates vary widely, so we at the Deloitte Center for Government Insights conducted our own analysis. Combining information about time use for government tasks from the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics with government employment rosters, we found if aggressively pursued, automation and AI-based technologies could free up huge numbers of labor hours.

At the high end, we estimate within the next 5-7 years, as many as 1.1 billion working hours could be freed up in the federal government every year, saving a whopping $37 billion annually. Ultimately, AI could potentially free up 30 percent of federal employees’ time. State government savings in time and money could be similar percentages.

Of course, much depends on how aggressively the public sector invests in cognitive technologies. Lower levels of investment and support would yield much lower savings, perhaps as low as just 2 to 4 percent of total labor time.

The enormous potential of AI to liberate resources offers tremendous promise for public managers faced with limited resources and expanding backlogs. Over the next 5-7 years, AI will allow the automation of part of many government jobs. New demands will arise for the tasks still performed by humans, which will become more valuable.

Knowledge workers, whose jobs once seemed secure, are feeling directly threatened for the first time. This generates no shortage of fear and dread within a wide range of organizations and industries—and public-sector agencies are no exception.

In general, however, as long as they are willing and able to adapt, most government employees should be well-positioned to create more value than ever, augmented by cognitive technologies. Here’s how AI could be a win-win-win for government managers and workers, and the citizens they serve.

The “sweet spot” for AI happens to include repetitive tasks, as well as tasks that are rules based and routine. High work-volume tasks such as data entry, documenting and recording information consume anywhere between 10-20 percent of federal employees’ time—hundreds of millions of hours annually. “Bots” can automate all kinds of these activities from invoice processing to filling in forms from data entry to writing budget reporting documents. Freeing up government employees from these tasks would be the equivalent of giving them an extra day a week to spend on higher-impact activities.

Technologies like machine learning and natural language processing then come into play, helping workers perform these more difficult tasks effectively and efficiently. This is the true promise of AI: humans and computers combining their strengths to achieve faster and better results, often doing what humans simply couldn’t do before.

Of course, truly achieving the benefits of AI augmentation in government will require some reskilling of current government employees to prepare them for work that complements cognitive technologies: skills like data analytics, training bots or designing human-to-machine interfaces.

Policymakers and government leaders can use AI as a way to unlock innovation among their workers, encouraging them to find new ways to use liberated work hours to improve the services they provide to citizens. The most forward-leaning jurisdictions will see cognitive technologies as an opportunity to reimagine the nature of government work itself, to make the most of complementary human and machine skills.

AI will support all these approaches. It will be up to government leaders to decide which will best serve their constituents.