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
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
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.
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