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Creaking Government IT systems could prevent attempts to cut civil service staffing

Creaking Government IT systems could prevent attempts to cut civil service staffing – Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Plans to slash public spending by replacing civil servants with artificial intelligence (AI) are at risk because of creaking Government IT systems, the National Audit Office has warned.

The public spending watchdog said “ageing IT infrastructure” would need to be addressed to realise the benefits of AI, adding that a lack of experts could also hold the Government back.

Ministers have outlined plans to save billions of pounds for the taxpayer by accelerating the roll-out of AI in areas such as the NHS and policing.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last week unveiled £3.4bn of investment to boost productivity in the NHS, which will include significant funding for AI.

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, has said that the technology is the only way to significantly cut the number of people employed in the civil service.

However, the NAO found that AI adoption in the public sector was at an early stage and in many cases, departments lacked plans for introducing it.

Of the 89 Government bodies surveyed by the watchdog, just over a third – 37pc – said they were using AI.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “To deliver these improved outcomes, Government needs to make sure its overall programme for AI adoption tackles long-standing issues, including data quality and ageing IT, as well as builds in effective governance of the risks.

“Without prompt action to address barriers to making effective use of AI within public services, Government will not secure the benefits it has identified.”

AI systems require access to large amounts of data, and may be incompatible with slow and out-of-date public IT systems that are based on obsolete versions of computer software.

The NAO said that failures to invest meant a “legacy IT infrastructure debt” had built up over time, leaving the Government with systems that were “risky, inefficient and costly to run”.

The Government’s digital office has said it had plans in place for replacing the riskiest systems by 2025 but accepted that fully addressing the issues will take longer.

Mr Hunt said last week that much of the £3.4bn NHS investment would help “modernise NHS IT systems so they’re as good as the best in the world”. Ministers have outlined £1.5bn to spend on supercomputers over the coming years.

The NAO said the biggest challenge to Government departments exploiting AI was a lack of staff able to use the technology.

Around 70pc of departments said difficulties recruiting and retaining skilled staff was a problem.

Salaries for AI experts have soared in the last year, often making it difficult for the public sector to compete.

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