How Do Public Sector Staff Perceive AI? With Stephen Jeffares Ep. 69

Episode 69

What is the future of work? How will AI impact frontline workers in the public sector? Dr. Stephen Jeffares from the University of Birmingham asked public sector workers what they think of digital technology and artificial intelligence. And these are our key takeaways.

Episode 69

Episode Summary

Public sector voice matters.

Conversations around AI are happening everywhere and everyone seems to have an opinion on them. But what about the public sector workers, aka the people who will be working with AI and related technologies every day? In a recent study, Dr. Stephen Jeffares found that the frontline workers are actually the ones missing from these conversations. Talking about AI and the future of work is still hard, and most times it's very polarized between those who get really excited about it and those who see it as a threat and would avoid it at all costs. These reasons led Stephen to dedicate his work to studying public workers' perceptions of new technologies, looking at the bigger picture and their impact on them.

The paradox of face-to-face.

One of the things Stephen discovered is the controversial perception people have of face-to-face interactions. Once again, it's a very polarized concept, as some people praise it and see it as a premium service, while others see it as inconvenient and wasteful. According to Stephen, this happens as it is difficult to measure what's really special about face-to-face interactions as it probably relates to levels of empathy and connection. For this reason, he thinks it should still be valued and AI can be used together with in-person interaction, as it allows workers to focus their energies on the right tasks, improving employee and customer experience at the same time.

The future of work.

Face-to-face interactions are definitely here to stay, as Stephen found out in his recent study about the key viewpoints of the future of work in the public sector. The main 3 points are as follows:

  • the power of interaction -  as people will value powerful interactions with public workers that are truly committed to their job, following the concept of 'public service motivation' mentioned in the episode
  • generation now - as customers become more impatient and expect 24/7 service, delivered through the adoption of technologies that are now only used by the private sector
  • augmentation - seen as human and machine collaboration that empowers both workers and customers.

This article summarises podcast episode 69 ”How Do Public Sector Workers Perceive AI?" recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode, or contact Stephen on his LinkedIn profile.

Written by Alessia Trabucco



Full episode transcript

Stephen: I was surprised to find people working in call centers really excited about the technology they were using because they said it made their job more efficient, and made them able to cut out some of the more tedious and boring parts of their job role. But I suppose if you take a step back from that and kind of start to question, well, what's the end what's the end game here? You know, as this technology is learning from the practice of, for example, call center workers, it's learning a lot from those conversations. So I suppose you can they can enjoy it on a day-to-day basis. But do they see the bigger picture of what's happening to them?

Valentina: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of CX Insider. In today's episode, Greg and I talk to Dr. Stephen Jeffares, associate professor of Public Policy and Digital Government at the University of Birmingham. Today we will talk about Stephen's research, his discovery, and thoughts on technology, innovation, and the public sector. So stay tuned. Enjoy the episode and don't forget to rate our podcast on your preferred channel.

Valentina: Innovation is one of the most common topics discussed on CX Insider. Whether it's the government, health care, retail or automotive, the term technology innovation appears several times in each episode. It would actually be interesting to see how many times we had a tool that could count it, so if you know any, let us know. Anyhow, for today's episode, we invited an academic, Dr. Stephen Jeffares, who's been researching how the current tech trends, more specifically artificial intelligence that aims to re-humanize customer services, are perceived by the front-line workers. Another important note, this research is entirely focused on the public sector. So we'll dive into this. But first, let's find out more about Stephen himself.

Stephen: I grew up in Greater Manchester and both my parents worked in the public service. My dad worked in probation, my mum worked in social work and it probably kind of led me towards a degree in public policy, just kind of a subset of political science. And I suppose I became really interested in kind of big ideas, really, where do ideas come from, and it led to a Ph.D. where I explored how big policy ideas shaped the way we govern cities and how these things catch on, how they glue together coalitions of organizations and individuals. And I suppose one of the things I do that work interested in subjectivity. Often we sort of see that as not very scientific, something that you want to drive out of science or social science but really I think what's really important is to understand the way that policymakers and public managers make sense of the things that are expected to deliver. So it's more than opinion polling, it's about understanding kind of the deeper reasons why people hold the views they do and how that shapes their practice. So I suppose my work has always been about how on earth do we measure that. How on earth do we study that? How do we kind of cut through all of that noise and understand that in a sort of systematic way? So for the last few years, I've been based at the School of Government in Birmingham. I also on top of my research, lead a leadership program for public managers. So working in the public sector and helping them to kind of work through the ways that they're. Yeah. The way their world is changing really for them and sort of equipping them for the next stage in their careers.

Valentina: Two years ago, Stephen conducted a study and published it in a book called 'The Virtual Public Servant Artificial Intelligence and Frontline Work'. This research analyses perceptions of frontline workers on using AI to make them more efficient. This is interesting because most people with whom we talk about artificial intelligence are not frontline workers who come into direct contact with the customer. And if society is about to transform the way customer service is delivered, shouldn't we, I mean, the society, companies, and managers, talk with those who currently serve the customer?

Stephen: The work kind of came out of personal experience from the way that I was experiencing the public sector, the way I was experiencing the NHS and local government, and also the things I was observing and also the way that my students were talking about their role in digital technology and the things they were getting excited about. And it struck me that talking about the use of artificial intelligence and related technologies in the future of public service is a really hard conversation to have. I think often it's very polarized between those that kind of get really excited about it, how it's going to change everything and improve everything, and those that see it as a huge threat to their job or to their role. And it struck me that often the people that were missing in those conversations were the front line themselves, particularly. So a lot of my work before that, I'd kind of focused at quite a sort of senior-level, strategic level, but it struck me that often what was missing is the front line in those conversations and trying to understand really what was happening in the public sector, what changes needed to take place in order to enable A.I. to be sort of used to a larger extent. And so, yes, that was the kind of motivation really for the book.

Valentina: AI is one of the technologies that is raising a lot of questions and concerns regarding the future of work. And just like with any other revolutionary technology, it will create disruption, which will make some people more efficient and some redundant.

Stephen: I was surprised to find people working in call centres really excited about the technology they were using because they said it made their job more efficient, made them able to cut out some of the more tedious and boring parts of their job role. But I suppose if you take a step back from that and kind of start to question, well, what's the end what's the end game here? You know, as this technology is learning from the practice of, of, of, of, for example, call centre workers, it's learning a lot from those conversations. So so I suppose you can they can enjoy it on a day to day basis. But do they see the bigger picture of what's happening to them? It's the same thing with doctors, I guess. I see a lot the way that this technology is sold to doctors and doctors organizations and and large hospital trusts and so on, is often to say, look, you know, you didn't do all of this training to be a doctor, to then just sit and do paperwork all day, and a lot of this technology can free you up from that work, and that's hugely popular with doctors. But at the same time, they're also often very sort of sceptical about, you know, how is this technology interfering in their decision-making processes. So whilst it can scan thousands of blood tests or cancer scans, MRI scans, you know, that can do a job probably better than even some of the finest radiologists and also, you know, make fewer mistakes and doesn't get tired and can work all night. But at the same time, you know, what's the limit here in terms of the decisions that are made around someone's someone's future and someone's treatment plan, you know, so yeah, it's kind of interesting how the technology can offer a lot of different jobs, but also at the same time can be a threat as well.

Valentina: The study eventually revealed three most common viewpoints occurring across various public sector positions doctors, librarians or police officers.

Stephen: What I wanted to do is develop a method really for trying to simulate what it would feel like to work in the future of public service. With the way I have those conversations with people that didn't have direct experience of that. So while some of the people I spoke to did and they were working with some really innovative tools for other people, it was completely new to them, so much in the same way that your doctor would put you on a treadmill to sort of simulate what it feels like to run for a boss, I was trying to simulate what it was like to work in that space. So essentially, it was a crowdsourcing exercise and they had to rank these different statements on a card, and then we kind of built out from there. And then we ran a factor analysis of people's rankings to be able to identify these viewpoints. So the first viewpoint was called the power of interaction, and I suppose what's driving here is really what's probably quite unique about the public service. So kind of in the literature they call it public service motivation, so it was about sort of saying what's, what's driving people to do this public service work and the power of direct interaction with the customers of those services. And I suppose it's kind of it wasn't that they were completely against the idea of technologies, but they were nervous that it was going to lead to a greater distancing and greater centralisation of services and a dehumanisation of services.

Stephen: So it was about really about the power of interaction. The second viewpoint is called generation now. And really the motivation here is really it's almost an impatience. This sense of the public sector has been failing customers for many years, and it kind of lags behind other industries like banking and retail, and actually that many of those techniques and systems could be imported into the public sector. And a lot of the in the follow-up interviews with the people who had this view, it was very much about, you know, my teenage children would think it was crazy the way that we do things in the public sector, and we need to do things differently. We need to be able to give people access 24/7 to the services that they need. So there's kind of an impatience really in the second one. And then the third one is much more about this idea of human and machine and the empowerment that comes from that. So it's kind of that augmentation piece around how humans and machines can work together. So really excited about the potential of AI, but also the empowerment that will come from that.

Valentina: Really, companies are increasingly limiting face-to-face interactions with customers. On one hand, it is widely welcomed by the younger generations, but many people still prefer seeing a person, even if it takes more time to get things done and is less efficient energy-wise. So what is it about the power of face-to-face? Can you really name it?

Stephen: I think there's something of a paradox, really. That face to face is both becoming what we're seeing as kind of a premium thing, you know, that you pay a little bit more or we invest a bit more and you get this kind of premium face to face service versus something that is seen as something that's wasteful or inconvenient and something we need to design out of the process, you know. So lots of unnecessary visits, you know, the thought of having to go to a physical location to fill in a form and have something processed when you could potentially just do it through using your smartphone, wherever, wherever you like. And I think we kind of need to move on from that really and kind of think, well, what is it about face-to-face that is potentially important? So this kind of idea of what's measured matters. I think what's difficult with face-to-face work is that it's not very easy to measure what it is that special about it. But I think certainly our experience of the pandemic is, you know, if we're returning back to the office and seeing our colleagues for the first time in many months, and that feeling you have afterwards where you kind of think that was really nice, you know, I've reconnected with my colleagues, I've been talking to them on Zoom for the last two years, but, you know, I've got that special sort of special feeling that, I've properly reconnected with my colleagues again, but it's very difficult for us to put a finger on what that actually is.

Stephen: What is it that's special? And if you think about services, it's the same. If you have a social worker visiting someone in their home, they're not just using their ears and their eyes, they can sense whether someone's coping by being in that in that physical space. And I think if we design all of our services that design out face-to-face because it's seen as wasteful or inconvenient, I think potentially we could lose a lot really and lose a lot of connection of empathy and understanding. So I think I think that's why we need to make sure we still value face-to-face and there's still a place for it. I think the people that are developing these technologies or will often say, well, you know, these things will free up your workers for four more face-to-face work with those people that need it. So there is a kind of an optimism there. But I think there's a responsibility of senior managers to make sure that that capacity is used appropriately and that they don't just think, well, actually, I could we could use that to make, you know, savings and actually just delete a lot of this face to face work. So I guess it's really important that as we move towards this. Greater use of AI. We also value the face to face interactions as well.

Valentina: As mentioned earlier, the younger generation often prefers to get things done digitally without any hassle of talking to a person or going to town. People aged 18 to 25, a generation entering the workforce, were raised in the digital space. It could be assumed that younger people will have even higher demands and expectations in terms of getting the most convenient service. And that doesn't always mean doing things digitally. Sometimes talking to a person is a much more convenient, quicker, faster, and better way to do things. But how are public sector institutions getting ready for this generation?

Stephen: I think there's often an assumption that the public sector is kind of lagging behind other sectors in the way they do things and the way they use technology, but I think there's been a sort of a huge acceleration around the use of service design and design thinking, particularly in areas like local government and health. I think they have a lot of barriers in the way around the bureaucracy of those systems and the way things are done. But if you look at countries like Estonia, you look at the government digital service in the UK and their use of service design and really innovative councils like Hackney and Greenwich and so on, I think there's a lot of optimism to be had really around the way that the public sector is going to meet the expectations of the next generation. And I think what I've seen as well is a lot more movement between sectors. I think the days of this kind of career civil servant that never leaves that service or the idea that someone who works in banking and retail doesn't work in the public sector, I think is over. You know, people there's a lot of movement, fluid movement between the sectors, and I think that's bringing a lot of innovative practice as well. And I think we sometimes have to be a bit careful saying the private sector has all the answers to this. I'm seeing there's a lot of legacy in big, long-established companies that have the same kind of challenges as government. And at the same time, there are some really, really exciting, innovative people within the public sector that are using service design to really transform services. So I'm really optimistic about how things are going to be going in the next five or ten years.

Valentina: If you're enjoying this episode, please don't forget to like share, comment or subscribe to the podcast on your preferred channel. Also, don't forget to rate the podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google. I don't know if any other podcast platforms offered this feature. If you're interested in reading Stephen's book, you can buy it on Amazon, the link is provided in the episode description below. That's it from me for today and enjoy the rest of the episode, which is Rapid Fire Questions. And you will hear from me in the next couple of weeks.

Valentina: What motivated you to study and do research on public policy?

Stephen: Do you know what I think it was? It was probably, you know, growing up with two public servants as parents and kind of listening to their stories about the work they did and also the challenges they faced and how frustrated they got at times and how difficult their job was at times. And it just struck me that, you know, after decades and decades of trying to get the public sector right and organize things in a particular way, in some ways that that project just kept failing, you know, and it's just struck me that there's there is a role for something called public policy, which is the kind of study of how public services is designed and organized and evaluated, and it struck me that that would be a really exciting area to work in.

Valentina: What do you enjoy the most about teaching and supervising university students?

Stephen: Well, I guess you never stop learning because the questions that they ask, the idea is that they come up with the way they look at things never stops surprising you. And because of the way universities work, you kind of generally get a new intake every autumn. So it kind of just never stops, it's like this constant refresh of ideas and conversations. And I don't think there's a job like it, really. And I think that's why people that work in universities love their work, it's because they're having these interactions with students, it's not just about disappearing off into a library and writing the next book or the next article. It's about that kind of exchange of ideas.

Valentina: What do you think is going to change about Twitter's public policy now when Elon Musk is the owner?

Stephen: I've been thinking about it all day. And so just for the benefit of the podcast, it's only just been announced, well, I guess it's been trailing for some time. I wonder how it's going to be possible to report a particular user for using particular levels of hate speech or, you know, behaviour towards others, which is kind of unacceptable in any, in any sense. You know, those kinds of reporting tools that you have within Twitter, you know, I kind of wonder what's going to happen to those really and whether it really is going to be this kind of Wild West, totally free space. Say whatever you like. It doesn't really matter as long as we know who you are. I think that's going to be the big change. I mean, it strikes me that that mosque does really want to be able to verify people's identity, but at the same time allow them to say whatever they like. And I'm kind of thinking whether that's going to be an enjoyable place to be at the moment. But I also kind of wonder what's going to happen to. I mean, it's a very popular platform for academics to cultivate their own careers and promote their work and to share ideas.

Stephen: And I kind of wonder whether or not that's going to be a space where they want to be. I think it's still too early to say.

Greg: One question I have for you, Stephen, and this is another curveball question, which is if you could interview anyone on a podcast, who would you interview?

Stephen: I tell you, I'd like to interview. There's a YouTuber that goes by the name of Techmoan, and he basically looks at old technology, takes old record players apart and has over a million subscribers and I think there's something really interesting about the interface between kind of the latest technology and all this technology and kind of understanding how things have gone wrong so often, like devices that have were useless or didn't really work properly and tried to understand why they didn't work and sort of tells the story about them. And I think it's really fascinating work and I think we can learn a lot from it. So yeah, I think he would make a good interviewee for the podcast.