27 October 2023

Beware the risks of AI in delivering public services, briefing paper warns

| Chris Johnson
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Artificial intelligence will be part of public service delivery in the future. But there are risks. Photo: File.

The very trustworthiness of public service delivery is at stake if artificial intelligence is not used correctly, a high-level briefing to government states.

While AI will transform public service delivery into the future, the benefits must be weighed against the risks, according to a long-term briefing insights paper the government commissioned.

Artificial intelligence offers significant opportunities to improve public service delivery, the paper says, but trustworthiness must be maintained as the highest priority.

“We will need to innovate to meet community expectations of public services in the future,” it says.

“Innovation, including adopting digital and AI technologies, can provide opportunities for efficiency gains that will allow governments to streamline everyday interactions and processes, focus resources on more complex and pressing issues, and meet the needs and expectations of the Australian people.

“The community’s expectations around the quality of public services are growing: for a higher standard of care; for tailored and personalised services; and for greater responsiveness, convenience and efficiency when accessing services.”

It goes on to explain that opportunities exist to use AI across the spectrum of activities carried out by the APS, and that AI capabilities are already being used in solutions in some Commonwealth government agencies.

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Stating clearly that in the future, AI will be a critical tool for maintaining and delivering even better quality services to a growing and ageing population, the paper emphasises that the service must be prepared to address the risks attached to AI.

“Using AI for public service delivery is not risk-free. AI systems can inherit biases present in their training data, leading to unfair or discriminatory outcomes,” it says.

“The collection and analysis of personal data for AI can have privacy and security risks. Complex AI systems might behave unpredictably, causing unintended outcomes at a scale and speed that are hard to control.”

The briefing papers cite the illegal Robodebt scheme as an example of an automated debt raising and recovery scheme for social security payments (although not an example of actual AI).

The underlying basis for debt calculation was flawed, resulting in many incorrect calculations. The scheme was then implemented quickly, and incorrectly calculated debts were raised and imposed on recipients at scale, thereby compounding the impact on the community.

These are all red flags for further use of AI in delivering public services.

The four key findings that came out of the report are:

  • Artificial Intelligence must be designed and implemented with integrity
  • Using artificial intelligence shouldn’t come at the expense of empathy
  • Artificial intelligence should improve performance, and
  • Successful service delivery depends on supporting people to engage with AI-enabled services in the long term.

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Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher welcomed the report, saying the introduction of long-term insights briefings is part of the APS Reform agenda and helping to build a better service.

“We are tapping into the skills within the Australian public service to consider significant policy issues and their future impact on Australians,” Ms Gallagher said.

“We know that AI technologies present a significant opportunity to improve public service delivery, but it is not without risk.

“This long-term insights briefing provides important insights for APS agencies considering how to adopt and implement aspects of AI so they can better deliver for the Australian community.”

The briefing papers aim to consider matters beyond the political cycle that have broad impacts across government.

They help position the APS as a thought leader for future challenges.

This AI briefing was the first to be released and was conducted as a pilot from June to September this year. It was developed by the APS Reform Office in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Stakeholder engagement found the community expects the APS to use AI in ways that demonstrate integrity, competence, and empathy and deliver a clear improvement in public services.

The briefing complements existing work occurring across the APS on the use of AI by the government, including the new AI use in Government Taskforce, jointly led by the Digital Transformation Agency and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources, and the Government’s Safe and Responsible AI in Australia public consultation.

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