11 June 2024

Time for APS to upskill in AI, says assistant minister

| Chris Johnson
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Assistant Minister for the Public Service Patrick Gorman

Assistant Minister for the Public Service Patrick Gorman says the APS must embrace AI to survive. Photo: File.

The Australian Public Service must embrace generative artificial intelligence (AI) or be left floundering domestically and on the world stage, according to Assistant Minister for the Public Service Patrick Gorman.

Addressing an Institute of Public Administration Australia summit in Canberra, Mr Gorman said the new technology could not be ignored and must be used to better deliver government services.

“I know the public sector needs to uplift our skill in artificial intelligence. There is no other option,” he said.

“Ministers like myself are seeing reports delivered to government by advocacy groups that have been developed by AI.

“In my electorate I know the letters I receive from constituents that are now written, in part, by my newest constituents, ChatGPT and Google Gemini.

“We are seeing artificial intelligence change our communities. It is helping, and challenging, small businesses. And the legislative challenges we will face require careful thinking.

“So this is a conversation that every parliamentarian, and every public servant, needs to be a part of.”

He said while Australia was always an early adopter “if not a leader” of technological advancement, it couldn’t afford to be left behind when everyone else had “heard the starting gun”.

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The minister cited examples of how leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, and parts of the Asia-Pacific were directing agencies to follow whole-of-government approaches to the safe and responsible development of AI.

“Generative AI has captured the world’s imagination. It has created urgency in the public sector and some apprehension. It has created a need for new guidance in the public sector,” he said.

“AI is already promising so much for the public service, giving us a glimpse of the future. Like earlier parts of the digital revolution, AI could simplify routine tasks, allowing public servants to deliver more services and policy to better support Australians.

“This is another race. The Australian Public Service can either lead as a policy innovator, or fall behind.”

Australia was one of the first governments in the world to adopt an ethical AI framework for government in 2019.

Within months of GPT4 being released, the Federal Government began consulting on translating principles into mandatory guardrails and a whole-of-government AI taskforce was created.

“Technology is transforming the way government works to improve the lives of all Australians,” Mr Gorman said.

“Geoscience Australia uses satellite imagery to monitor a range of changes to our landscape – everything from bushfires, coastline movements and floods to agriculture and mining industries.

“In a land of drought and flooding rains and in a changing climate, this data has never been more important to access…

“AI is the next chapter of technological advancement for our society. I am determined Australia’s public servants seek out the massive benefits of AI and use it in a safe and transparent way.”

The government has committed $39.9 million over five years to support the adoption and use of AI and flagged four new “AI adopt projects” to act as a front door to connect business with AI expertise.

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“Building an AI-ready public sector workforce will require considered effort from people, systems and culture,” the minister said.

“The APS Academy will play a role in building capability on how we can best and safely use AI for the future.

“Last year, the government released interim guidance for agency use of public generative AI tools.”

Those principles are accountability, transparency, privacy, security, fairness, and wellbeing.

“My message is clear – public servants should use AI and use it wisely,” Mr Gorman said.

“They must think about the policy challenges it brings and make sure we grab the opportunities available…

“In many corners of the public sector, AI is already making a difference…”

He said AI was at its best when it supported the important work of our public servants to serve Australia.

“Building APS-wide capability in a completely new way. Balancing innovation and risk is a priority.

“As we introduce AI into the public sector, we must learn from the past and apply those lessons wisely.

“The recent Robodebt scandal that used automated decision making taught us that when making decisions and creating processes that directly impact people’s lives, we cannot take the human out of the equation.

“At every level and step, the human factor is the most important factor. Our government is committed to putting people at the centre of the decisions we make in design, policy and technology.

“It is against this backdrop of caution, I am genuinely optimistic.”

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