Almost a quarter of a million public sector jobs could be taken over by automated systems and artificial intelligence within the next 15 years, according to a think tank.

A report by Reform states ‘a less hierarchical model, which exploits advances in technology, will help managers develop a leaner and better performing workforce’.

This could mean a cost-saving to the UK of £4bn per year, and the vast majority of these savings would be made by reducing the public sector's wage bill.

Some public services are already delivering on this vision.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) reduced its numbers of administrative staff from 96,000 to 60,000 over the last decade through expanding online services and providing better real-time information.

It plans to reduce 11,000 more, as it aims to become “diamondshaped”.

According to the report, which was based on interviews, data, previous research and Freedom of Information requests: “Reductions of jobs must be done strategically, however, as a better way of working, rather than salami slicing roles to make savings.”

By following this approach, it is claimed Whitehall, the NHS and police can reduce headcount significantly.

According to often-cited analysis by Oxford University academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, many routine administrative roles have a 96 per cent chance of being automated by current technology.

In September 2013, the pair studied 702 and the impact of automation using a Gaussian process.

Applying their calculations to current public-sector numbers suggests that over the next 10 to 15 years, central government departments could further reduce headcount by 131,962, saving £2.6 billion from the 2016-17 wage bill.

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In the NHS, Osborne and Frey’s most conservative estimate reveals that 91,208 of 112,726 administrator roles (outside of primary care) could be automated, reducing the wage bill by approximately £1.7 billion.

In primary care, a pioneering GP provider interviewed for this paper has a clinician-to-receptionist ratio of 5:1, suggesting a potential reduction of 24,000 roles across the NHS from the 2015 total.

In total this would result in 248,860 administrative roles being replaced by technology.

For many other roles, new technology will increase productivity. McKinsey estimates that 30 per cent of nurses’ activities could be automated, and a similar proportion for doctors in some specialities, enabling those skilled practitioners to focus on their non-automatable skills.

The 90-page report recommends:

  • Automate administrative roles where appropriate, including in the Civil Service to make Whitehall “diamond-shaped”. Employ technology to improve the efficiency and quality of front-line and strategic roles
  • Disrupt hierarchies through fewer management layers and self-management models
  • Cultivate a learning environment by empowering leaders to learn from mistakes, rather than attribute blame. Public services should make better use of randomised-control trials and agile working patterns
  • Empower leaders to motivate employees as they see fit, unencumbered by rigid pay and performance management structures and role definitions
  • Introduce new recruitment patterns, including targeting non-traditional entry routes, such as apprenticeships and digital contingent-labour platforms, to attract a wider skill base