Blog Post

December 15, 2023

Digital, Data & Technology at PUBLIC: Public Sector Pathways for Responsible AI Adoption

For the final edition of our Spotlight Interview series, we sat down with Thomas Chalk, our Director of Digital, Data & Technology (DDaT) to explore key insights from our latest report on AI Adoption in the UK Public Sector. Thomas shares his perspectives on navigating the challenges and opportunities outlined in the report, shedding light on the strategic pathways required for successful AI integration within government operations and service delivery.
Thomas, a core priority for the DDaT team is centred around guiding responsible AI adoption in the public sector. Could you shed light on what we mean by this, particularly in relation to the findings presented in our latest report on AI Adoption in the UK Public Sector?

With longstanding ties to the AI startup ecosystem and extensive experience in supporting the public sector to adopt emerging tech, we focus on practical approaches when balancing AI innovation, risk, governance and compliance. This revolves around the understanding that governments are tasked with the responsible adoption of AI as regulator, facilitator, and consumer. For us, practical deployment of AI extends beyond cost-cutting measures and grand promises. Instead, we focus on actively prioritising user-centred design grounded in different government bodies’ day-to-day needs to tackle thorny challenges and become better decision-makers. Bringing user-centricity into responsible AI adoption mandates a holistic comprehension of the full picture, covering how to balance investments, create robust deployment guidelines, and embed strategic upskilling across government functions. Our latest report spotlights the challenges and opportunities surrounding AI implementation across these core three critical areas, assessing the current state of AI adoption across the UK government whilst providing a starting blueprint to move the needle further for enhanced operations and service delivery. With interest in AI becoming increasingly more saturated with hype, this report is a timely and worthwhile read, focusing on clear and actionable steps to capture the value of AI for public sector innovation. 

Through its analysis, the report calls for more balanced and outcomes-driven allocation of AI investments between different public service areas. What are some best-practice commercial strategies and methods to achieve this?

Let’s talk about how we’re spending on AI right now. Most of the time, a significant portion of AI spending leans heavily on broad contracts or enclosed frameworks, limiting access to diverse suppliers and constraining the adaptability of contract terms essential for sustainable AI development and upkeep. A shift towards fortified standards and centralised mechanisms that champion best-practice commercial methods is crucial. We’re talking about setting up domain and use-case specific procurement guidance, catering to each area’s specific needs and strategic outcomes to make sure AI fits the job. Another big thing, which PUBLIC has always stood for, is bringing in more voices to the table and fostering a competitive environment. Challenge programmes and events such as our recent AWS AI in the Public Sector showcase, where AI startups presented solutions to challenge statements determined by the Ministry of Justice, Environment Agency and Government Digital Service for UI optimisation, case management, and monitoring compliance, ensure public sector buyers can learn and engage with a wider pool of innovative AI solutions and tools before scaling them into full services. 

We’ve also seen first hand the benefits of adopting a phased or rapid prototyping approach to AI product assessment, allowing teams to simulate different scenarios to test the viability of projects without extensive resource investment tied explicitly to value-drivers. By applying this principle, thorough testing and iterative enhancements can take place aligned with evolving feedback loops and crucial trends. These practices can ensure adaptive, strategic and more accountable approaches to AI procurement and deployment within the public sector. 

The notion of a central repository for AI use cases stood out as a significant step that could be taken to drive collaboration and drive effective AI deployment across diverse government sectors. Can you tell us more about this recommendation? 

The establishment of a centralised repository for AI use cases, best practices and reusable components across government departments is a practical step that can take ambitions for adoption much further, faster. The idea of a repository could serve as a dynamic hub for cross-government knowledge sharing and collaboration, facilitating the exchange of valuable insights, successful AI application models, and components that can be repurposed and adapted to suit different sectors. Its significance lies in the opportunity it presents for departments to collectively learn from experiences and successes, fostering an environment that expedites the learning curve in AI deployment. This way, not only will processes be streamlined but it also sets the stage for a more informed and effective AI implementation strategy across the public sector, ensuring impactful and efficient adoption across government operations and service delivery. 

Why is it imperative for governments to invest in a strategic approach to AI learning and workforce transformation and how might this be achieved effectively?

Responsible and effective AI adoption within the public sector hinges on human-centred expertise To embed a pervasive culture of AI proficiency throughout the civil service, it’s crucial to empower civil servants with foundational AI knowledge and skills. As AI tools increasingly cater to non-technical users, bridging the skill gap for commercial teams, service managers, and even at the senior leadership level becomes paramount to ensure successful adoption and utilisation. 

Our initiative to develop an AI Deployment Capability Framework serves as a strategic roadmap essential for navigating the complex landscape of AI implementation within government sectors. It maps out the necessary skills and capabilities required at every stage of the AI lifecycle. It facilitates a comprehensive understanding of user needs and pinpoints strategic areas where AI can be optimally employed to achieve targeted outcomes. These skills are pivotal; they enhance the ability to define product specifications, identify suitable solutions, and implement iterative strategies, ultimately minimising risks and maximising the value derived from AI applications. 

Through this tiered approach, we aim to illustrate how governments can establish a minimum operating standard for AI knowledge, expertise, and application across each phase of the lifecycle. These baseline competencies equip public servants with the proficiency needed to navigate diverse AI types efficiently and responsibly, enabling them to select the right tools and assess their suitability to accomplish their objectives effectively.

‍For digital - and non-digital - leaders looking to apply AI, data tools, and other digital technologies within their teams in a cost-effective way that adds practical value from Day 1, Thomas and the PUBLIC team are here to help make the abstract a reality. Connect with Thomas directly at thomas.chalk@public.io to start a conversation -  from problem discovery to rapid prototyping through to full-scale product development and implementation, we’re here to provide expert support and guidance to ensure you implement solutions that make a real impact.

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Thomas Chalk

Director of Digital, Data & Technology

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Natasha Wren

Head of Communications

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