AI skills gap blocking public sector take-up

All industries are facing a growing skills gap that is blocking them from effectively implementing artificial intelligence (AI), but this gap is deepest in the public sector, with 60% identifying a shortage of AI skills as their top implementation challenge, according to a study by Salesforce.

In the US, federal government agencies are already being directed to implement guidelines and build teams to support the use of AI, and public sector bodies in Washington DC and across all 50 states are working towards implementing the conditions of president Joe Biden’s October 2023 Executive Order on the subject.

Closer to home, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) have been working on a draft AI strategy – which a recent National Audit Office report said needed further development in areas including skills.

Released in tandem with the Washington DC leg of the software giant’s annual World Tour this week, Salesforce’s double-blind study, which covers the UK, Australia, France, Germany and the US, pours more fuel on the skills discussion, claiming that effective use of AI could save government workers countless working hours and billions of dollars every year if the gap can be successfully addressed.

Some of the more noteworthy statistics revealed in the study – which was jointly produced with research house Vanson Bourne – include:

  • A mere 28% of public sector IT professionals claim expertise in using generative AI (GenAI) as part of their day-to-day workflows;
  • Only 32% say they’re experts in understanding GenAI use cases, such as providing assistance with content creation, or analysing large datasets;
  • Only 30% say they’re experts in implementing AI within their organisations.

“Training and skills development are critical first steps for the public sector to leverage the benefits of AI. By investing in new skills like prompt development, public sector leaders can empower their workforce to use AI to increase productivity, build deeper relationships with constituents, and improve the quality of public services,” said Casey Coleman, Salesforce senior vice-president of global government solutions.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at the DC event, Salesforce’s vice-president of federal affairs, Hugh Gamble, said the issues around upskilling the public sector workforce for AI would be complex, but solvable in the medium- to long-term.

“A lot of people talk about workforce issues around AI… I think it’s going to hone the skills of a lot of workers and make their days more focused on the tasks that require their engagement input,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how we’re going to get there from an educational perspective, but it’s going to require an effort from everybody.

“Some of that is going to be on prompt building, some of it’s going to be on being able to make sure that what you’re getting is accurate outputs and feedback. People are going to be able to incrementally learn some of those skills, but there will be some large leaps.”

Gamble continued: “What you have to do is focus on it industry by industry. The needs of someone who works in the healthcare space and their ability to use AI are going to be different from the people in the government space or in the agricultural space. You’re going to have to look at it segment by segment, and figure out what are the applicable AI skills and how you train for them.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for it. The tech industry has focused on the issue of upskilling for years and there has never been a great answer that solves everybody’s problems.”

Investing in public sector AI

At the World Tour event, Salesforce launched a number of generative AI services for the public sector – Public Sector Einstein 1 for Service – to help government bodies automate administrative tasks and provide faster services to citizens.

Among the newly available features are Caseworker Narrative Generation, which will help frontline staffers, such as social workers, generate case reports and summaries in their workflows; Service Cloud, which uses conversational AI to transcribe calls while guiding call centre agents on appropriate next steps for the inbound caller; and Einstein Activity Capture for Public Sector, which leverages natural language processing to help caseworkers document case interactions by collecting data and insights from various contact points.

“Public sector organisations want to simplify their technology stack, better engage with constituents and reduce employees’ administrative burdens while improving employee productivity,” said Salesforce public sector executive vice-president and general manager Nasi Jazayeri.

“With Public Sector Einstein 1 for Service, organisations can implement trusted AI to become more efficient, better manage and harmonise their data, and give employees the tools they need to better serve their constituents, all while driving their mission forward.”


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