Understanding the government’s ambition for AI is one thing – making it real is quite another


“We are at the cusp of one of the most exciting times in our lives and, if we get our strategy for AI right, then the UK will be able to reap the rewards for our economy for decades to come.”

Greg Clark - Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

It feels like exciting times for government departments, both central and local, with artificial intelligence (AI) and all its promise of efficiency and smart decision making climbing up the strategic agenda. I know from experience with customers across the worlds of commerce and the public sector that AI is certainly capable of bringing real material change to ways of working. 

The critical question now is how government departments can translate AI’s potential into meaningful, positive, even life-changing outcomes for citizens, our economy post-Brexit, and society and our island environments as a whole? 

The answer, in my opinion, is to break AI implementation down into a very definite set of steps. It’s not a glamorous, big-bang approach, but it is one that has been proven time and time again to turn visions into value-generating realities. You can read about these in detail at the SAS Public Sector site. 

Change brings benefits

We’ve all read the controversial headlines about AI and how it will supposedly mark the end of human civilisation as AI soldiers go rogue and machines take all human jobs. It’s right to acknowledge that, with AI, significant change is afoot.

But it is change that, if planned well and has the buy-in of citizens and employees, will help to create a way of governing the UK that is smarter, more equitable and more efficient than we could ever hope to achieve without AI. It will help to build a way of governing that frees experienced civil servants to use their lateral thinking, compassion and creativity to better support organisations and citizens. And it will help government make more nuanced, strategic decisions about how to reach more people with the right resources and interventions. 

Changing perceptions

The current challenge is the perception of AI. Therefore, we recommend that every department communicates both internally and externally what benefits AI offers to those affected by its deployment. It’s about hearts and minds, honesty and giving audiences a stake. There is no reason for your audiences to worry about AI. If you think about what it really is – a means to enhance human endeavour, rather than replace it – it’s eminently possible to bring both the public and employees along with you. 

After all, in their lives as consumers, citizens are very willing to supply commercial organisations with the data they need to power the advanced analytics that gives AI its intelligence and learning capabilities. They just need to trust that when they give more data to government bodies they will see real value from it (better services, more access to public resources) rather than be penalised for it (hounded by endless communications, mired in more administration).  

In our paper Artificial Intelligence: How to Transform the Potential Into a Smart Reality, I talk about some of the ways government bodies can begin to build trust with citizens as both a preliminary step towards AI implementation and as an ongoing process once AI is in operation. Why is that important? Because many people – even those involved in AI development – have concerns about the ethical use if AI, including possible algorithmic bias and what checks and balances should be put in place to ensure fair outcomes.   

Planning is key

Now on to the topic at hand: How can government departments translate the possibilities of AI into a meaningful reality? I propose that there are five critical considerations to make, as follows, and you can read about them in detail in the paper referenced above.

  1. Clarity of objective is key. Where will AI deliver the most value? In policymaking, service delivery, analysing complex data sets for insights? Or all of this and more? Wherever you deploy AI, know your objectives inside out before beginning, or it could simply become a costly exercise.
  2. Know your data very well. AI is only possible if you have access to big data – structured and unstructured contextual data – that you can use in a compliant way.
  3. Put citizens and ethics at the core. This is about ensuring AI never becomes a vanity project. Start by looking at the citizen outcomes you would like to change and how AI can ethically support that.
  4. Adopt a fail fast, learn fast mentality. Don’t be afraid to take an entrepreneurial approach to developing AI applications in the early stages. Any failures you do experience are invaluable learning experiences, though it will be vital to be agile and ensure your teams can maintain forward momentum.
  5. Accelerate valuable outcomes quickly. The best way to achieve this is through partnership.

Partnering for success

It can be helpful to develop an outreach programme to collaborate with departments that have already had success. Also partner with experts outside your field – especially those who can offer AI solutions you can adapt to your situation. This route will give you an essential shortcut through all the many issues you’ll need to navigate, such as regulatory compliance, decision tool development, data management, training and skills development, and more. 

It can be helpful to develop an outreach programme to collaborate with departments that have already had success. And to partner with experts who can offer AI solutions adaptable to your situation. Click To Tweet

Government organisations that have taken a structured approach to the challenges, opportunities and outcomes of AI are now enjoying incredible efficiencies, improved service satisfaction levels, reduced backlogs and a more intelligent way to govern. You can read more about some of the creative ways governments are using AI in our paper. I hope it gives you lots of food for thought, and if you’d like to know more about how SAS is supporting UK government departments in this field, please click here to find out more.  

This blog was first published on Civil Service World. 


About Author

Hugo D'Ulisse

Sr Manager, Pre-Sales Support

Hugo D’Ulisse leads the UK Centre of Excellence team responsible for Big Data & Data Management at SAS UK & Ireland. He is passionate about the opportunity that data and analytics offers to transform the way we do things across all industry sectors. Hugo and his team have developed the SAS Big Data Innovation Lab proposition to accelerate how our customers experiment with analysis of new and existing data types to create innovation in their organisations.

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