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In April 2018, the European Commission adopted its first AI strategy, laying out a vision for how AI could transform the public sector.
The strategy revealed how new machine-learning technologies and data tools can improve public services, reduce costs, provide staff with new skillsets and drive efficiencies.
And yet, for the vast majority of public sector organizations in Western Europe, the transformative potential of AI remains elusive.
Research Microsoft conducted with EY this year suggests many such organizations are trying to make the most of emerging AI technologies – but are coming up against roadblocks.
The research found that 67% of public sector organizations have successfully used AI at least once. For 65%, AI is viewed as an important digital priority.
And yet only 4% of organizations have successfully implemented AI in a meaningful way.
As we assess and adapt to the impact of the pandemic, maintain frontline services and navigate the new realities of social distancing, taking advantage of AI has never been so important for the public sector.
Whilst every organization will face its own unique challenges, a few universal principles apply.
AI is reliant on inspiring leadership.
Microsoft’s research shows the leaders of the most successful public sector organizations are actively involved in planning, implementing and evaluating AI initiatives. They understand that unlocking the full value of AI requires a commitment to working differently.
AI powered tools offer easily discoverable efficiencies because they can handle simple or repetitive tasks. But AI’s greatest value comes when it is used to innovate and enhance core services and citizen experiences – when it’s designed to augment, and not replace, people.
In Italy, for example, the IRCCS Policlinico San Donato University Hospital uses diagnostic image recognition and electrocardiography, liberating the hospital’s radiologists to make more informed assessments and recommendations.
But the way physicians across Europe approach their work, and use data, changes from one day to the next. Meaningfully implanting AI therefore relies on a change in working culture alongside new technologies. This requires proactive and inspiring senior leadership.
Introducing AI requires organizations to properly consider the ethics of privacy, safety, transparency and fairness.
A hospital, for example, might be using AI to help develop a treatment plan for a patient, or a government body might be using technology to help identify at-risk citizens who are entitled to social services. The importance of these decisions can’t simply be measured. But any algorithm must be applied fairly and ethically to ensure all people are treated equally.
For any entity – whether it’s a local government agency, a hospital or an educational institution – building and maintaining trust is absolutely critical to ensure employees and the citizens they serve feel comfortable working with AI.
AI systems are only as good as the data they are fed. It means the right information must be collected. But it also requires a cultural change that allows people to understand how working responsibly with data can lead to powerful new outcomes. Everyone in an organization must be carefully trained to understand and appreciate their duty to handle data in an ethical way.
Establishing clear guidance and transparent processes is therefore a pivotal early step. To help address this, Microsoft has developed guidance on responsible AI design and use, which can be found here.
As Microsoft’s research shows, the organizations who are leading the way on AI place as much emphasis on developing the existing skills of their employees as they do on implementing the technology itself.
As you might expect, hard skills like data science and engineering are helpful. But consider the things an AI system struggles to do – human solutions born of creativity, empathy and intuitive problem-solving. AI, then, allows employees to spend more time developing the softer-skills that are integral to the success of any organization.
With an AI system in place, organizations can spend more time focusing on negotiation, management, leadership and communications skills that make everyone’s life easier.
Only 11% of the survey’s respondents indicated their organization had the right mix of AI-related skills. Clearly this is a significant new opportunity for the public sector to develop inter-organizational skills in the AI era.
Fortunately, there’s a wealth of free training and educational content available online at Microsoft’s AI Business School. This content also includes a learning path specifically designed for Government.
To be sure an organization’s employees have the skills they need, creating a learn-it-all culture is key. This means more than the introduction of training courses. It means instilling the value of learning as a pathway to reinvention.
AI has the power to transform, but not on its own. Success is as much about people, culture and leadership as it is about technology. For AI to deliver its full potential, it has to be a human endeavor.
Learn more about how AI is being used in public sector organizations across the region in our report ‘Artificial Intelligence in the Public Sector: European Outlook for 2020 and Beyond’