The Risks and Rewards of Emerging Technologies within Public Services

The Risks and Rewards of Emerging Technologies within Public Services

Investments in digital infrastructure in the public sector have lagged for years. The COVID-19 pandemic has torn back the curtain to reveal a dilapidated IT framework that undergirds many of the services that millions rely on for education, food, and public safety. Within the first three months of the pandemic, over 44 million Americans filed for unemployment, overwhelming current government software systems and public service workers. Now is the time to remediate patchy systems and strengthen the tools and platforms needed to meet the demand for public services likely to continue well into the future.

The pandemic only highlights a long-standing need to improve public sector processes. With decades of rising workload demands, worker shortages, and budget constraints, many public sector institutions have been ramping up deployment of emerging technologies to support productivity. Machine learning-powered tools are increasingly used to support decision-making in classrooms and child welfare offices, chatbots can field common questions from the public and offer appropriate resources in law enforcement and food assistance programs, and robotic process automation (RPA) bots assist to streamline social service applications.

While emerging technologies such as natural language processing, machine learning, and RPA promise to make the public sector more efficient, effective, and equitable, they also pose ethical challenges in implementation. Emerging technologies, especially AI-enabled tools, can present risks to the public by reinforcing biasesmaking costly errors, and creating privacy and security vulnerabilities from data collection and collation. For public sector workers, implementation of inefficient, inaccurate, or ineffective technologies can overburden and undermine their efforts.

The public sector is at a pivotal moment in its digital transition. While the pandemic has acted as a catalyst, jumpstarting the rollout of emerging technologies in services, full integration into the sector is still in the early stages. The appropriate modernization of the sector requires proactive and thoughtful consideration of the benefits and risks of deployments and careful analysis of the effects of these early applications to inform appropriate technology and policy strategies. Doing so will better ensure that future applications maximize benefits and mitigate harms to the public sector workforce and the beneficiaries of its programs.

The CITRIS Policy Lab, with support from Microsoft, has released a report investigating the effects of emerging technologies within three public service sectors: K-12 education, social welfare services, and law enforcement. The report explores the implications of emerging technologies on efficiency, effectiveness, and equity in each sector and provides specific technology and policy recommendations for each. These analyses are used to formulate broad recommendations to guide adoption of emerging technologies in ways that mitigate harms and maximize benefits for workers and the public. Among the recommendations: implement frequent reviews to ensure technology deployments are adequately meeting the needs of the workforce and public; develop appropriate training mechanisms to equip workers with the technical skills necessary to use and evaluate the effects of new technology; and adjust procurement processes to confirm that gains in efficiency and effectiveness from implementation do not outweigh equity concerns.

The public sector is rife with antiquated IT infrastructure in dire need of being updated. The COVID pandemic and related economic disaster have accelerated the need to implement better technology-powered solutions. Fortunately, innovative tools incorporating machine learning, virtual reality, and robotics are ready to be put into service in the sector. With appropriate consideration of their effect on the workforce and the public, emerging technologies can be leveraged to provide more efficient, effective, and equitable outcomes for public service professionals and the democracy they serve.

The article originally appeared on the Technology | Academics | Policy (TAP) website.


The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute drive interdisciplinary innovation for social good with faculty researchers and students from four University of California campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz – along with public and private partners.

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