How Automation Could Impact the Public Workforce
New studies shed light on the job security of certain government jobs in an increasingly digital age.
Automation has already altered several industries, and it’s only a matter a time before it transforms more of them. Given that many governments continue to grapple with tight budgets and suppressed staffing levels, it’s worth considering whether they might one day rely more on automation and technology to carry out tasks performed by humans.
Recent studies have shed some light on what this might look like, particularly in the public sector.
Automation has already made some forays into government. Kirke Everson, a KPMG intelligent automation consultant, cited "chatbots" utilized in call centers as an example. He suggested that automation could soon replace personnel who perform repetitive back-office tasks, such as eligibility checks and other procedures following a defined set of rules.
“Government is ripe for automation,” Everson says. "But if it requires a large amount of judgments or human interaction, maybe you don’t start there.”
In the U.K., an estimated 861,000 public-sector jobs could be automated by 2030, according to an analysis by Deloitte and Oxford University. “Administrative and operative” roles, which account for 27 percent of the public workforce, were identified as having the highest probability of being automated. These types of jobs are already declining, and the report projects their numbers in the U.K. to fall further from 87,000 in 2015 to only 4,000 by 2030.
A separate Oxford University study examined U.S. job occupations, deeming about 47 percent of total employment in both government and the private sector to be “at risk” of computerization. Some public-sector roles considered most vulnerable included library workers, postal service clerks and transportation inspectors -- all positions with highly repetitive tasks. Many of the other occupations researchers identified were especially common in transportation. These included bus drivers and subway or streetcar operators, as well as highway maintenance workers.
|SOC Code||Public Sector Occupation||Probability of Computerization|
|33-1021||First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers||0.0036|
|33-1012||First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives||0.0044|
|11-9032||Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School||0.0046|
|25-2011||Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education||0.0074|
|25-2054||Special Education Teachers, Secondary School||0.0077|
|25-2031||Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education||0.0078|
|11-9033||Education Administrators, Postsecondary||0.01|
|25-2053||Special Education Teachers, Middle School||0.016|
|33-3051||Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers||0.098|
|25-2012||Kindergarten Teachers, Except Special Education||0.15|
|29-9011||Occupational Health and Safety Specialists||0.17|
|25-2022||Middle School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Educa-||0.17|
|25-3011||Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors||0.19|
|29-9012||Occupational Health and Safety Technicians||0.25|
|21-1092||Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists||0.25|
|53-3011||Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians||0.25|
|23-1023||Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates||0.4|
|19-4093||Forest and Conservation Technicians||0.42|
|43-4031||Court, Municipal, and License Clerks||0.46|
|43-5031||Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers||0.49|
|33-3012||Correctional Officers and Jailers||0.6|
|51-8031||Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators||0.61|
|47-4011||Construction and Building Inspectors||0.63|
|23-1021||Administrative Law Judges, Adjudicators, and Hearing Officers||0.64|
|53-3021||Bus Drivers, Transit and Intercity||0.67|
|43-5052||Postal Service Mail Carriers||0.68|
|43-4061||Eligibility Interviewers, Government Programs||0.7|
|11-9131||Postmasters and Mail Superintendents||0.75|
|43-5053||Postal Service Mail Sorters, Processors, and Processing Machine Oper-||0.79|
|33-3041||Parking Enforcement Workers||0.84|
|53-4041||Subway and Streetcar Operators||0.86|
|47-4051||Highway Maintenance Workers||0.87|
|53-3022||Bus Drivers, School or Special Client||0.89|
|43-4121||Library Assistants, Clerical||0.95|
|43-5051||Postal Service Clerks||0.95|
But does this mean large numbers of public employees will one day be out of work?
Historically, industrialization and improvements in technology haven't caused higher long-term unemployment. It’s unknown whether this time will be any different, though, with economists offering different predictions for automation’s effects.
Neil Reichenberg, who heads the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, views it more as a shift. “It’s not so much cutting staff as it is moving people to more strategic, higher-level work,” he says.
While technology has already reshaped countless occupations across just about every segment of the economy, it hasn’t yet prompted the complete elimination of many types of jobs. Consider teachers, who employ greater use of educational software programs in classrooms. These and other types of public employee positions haven’t vanished, but they do require greater tech skills than in years past.
Although some might associate automation with armies of robots, it’s computers that are most responsible for redefining work these days. A recent Brookings Institution report assessed “digitization,” or the degree of computer skills and related knowledge typically required of various occupations. Several public-sector jobs that required few digital skills in 2002 now mandate at least mid-level proficiency of computers or other devices.
Parking enforcement workers and compliance officers, for example, might have relied entirely on paper records not long ago. Today, the Brookings data suggests digital skills for these occupations have jumped considerably over the past decade.
|Public-Sector Occupation||2002 Digital Score||2016 Digital Score||Difference|
|Social and Community Service Managers||14||59||45|
|Parking Enforcement Workers||10||55||44|
|Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates||14||55||41|
|Social and Human Service Assistants||16||54||37|
|Postmasters and Mail Superintendents||28||65||36|
|Career/Technical Education Teachers, Middle School||30||65||35|
|Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers||27||62||35|
|First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers||21||56||35|
|Cargo and Freight Agents||25||59||34|
|Fire Inspectors and Investigators||23||57||34|
|Special Education Teachers, Secondary School||27||61||34|
|Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School||27||60||34|
|Court, Municipal, and License Clerks||26||57||31|
|Special Education Teachers, Middle School||27||57||30|
|Middle School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education||30||60||30|
|Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education||30||60||30|
|Administrative Law Judges, Adjudicators, and Hearing Officers||27||56||29|
|Eligibility Interviewers, Government Programs||25||54||29|
|Highway Maintenance Workers||4||32||28|
|Political Science Teachers, Postsecondary||36||63||27|
|Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors||32||59||27|
|Education Administrators, Elementary and Secondary School||39||65||26|
|Library Assistants, Clerical||39||65||26|
|Postal Service Clerks||28||52||24|
|Bus Drivers, Transit and Intercity||2||24||21|
|History Teachers, Postsecondary||36||56||20|
|Education Administrators, Postsecondary||39||59||19|
|Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors||30||49||19|
|Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers||51||67||16|
|Postal Service Mail Carriers||6||22||16|
|Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics||40||55||15|
|Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education||45||58||13|
|Bus Drivers, School or Special Client||3||14||11|
|Education Administrators, Preschool and Child Care Center/Program||39||47||8|
|Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education||22||29||7|
|Kindergarten Teachers, Except Special Education||24||28||3|
|First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives||59||61||3|
|Urban and Regional Planners||59||55||-4|
|Vocational Education Teachers, Postsecondary||39||30||-9|
In some ways, automating various aspects of jobs could prove to be more difficult in the public sector than in the private sector. Unions, Reichenberg says, will likely oppose efforts expected to result in job losses. Last year, the union membership rate for government workers was more than five times that of the private sector.
Still, if automation offers governments ways to cut costs without sacrificing quality of services, they'll likely consider it. Resources remain limited. Revenues aren’t expected to grow much, and total state and local government employment is still below levels reached a decade ago. In some jurisdictions, automated processes or technologies could enable governments to provide services that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
“It’s inevitable," Reichenberg says. "If you look at the way we do work today, technology is going to play a major role.”