Citizens don’t want to talk to machines
by Bernard Harbor

Public service management should work with unions to ensure that the introduction of new technologies does not lead to job losses or poorer services, according to Fórsa. Speaking at the union’s Civil Service Division Conference in Kilkenny last week, senior official Derek Mullen vowed the union would not oppose the introduction of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). “But technological advancement should not be at the cost of services or jobs,” he said.

Derek pointed to the positive experience of the Revenue Commissioners, where new forms of work organisation – supported by retraining – had increased the tax take and improved audit and fraud control, rather than cutting jobs.

He told 400 conference delegates that Fórsa would not give blanket support to the replacement of people-provided services with AI. “We will support properly thought-out automation, controlled by workers and managers whose aim will be the continued enhancement and delivery of public services. Citizens don’t want to talk to machines,” he said.

In a submission presented to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform earlier this year, Fórsa argued for steps to ensure that new recruits are equipped to thrive in increasingly-automated work environments, and said older workers should get help to adapt.

The paper also argued against an expensive external consultant-led approach to technological development. “The diminution of in-house IT services over the last two decades has seen the growth of a hugely costly consultant-led approach to designing new systems. This must change,” it says.

The submission was written as part of the union’s response to civil service management proposals for procurement of new technologies, on foot of an automation pilot that’s been underway in a small number of departments over the last year.

Derek told delegates that Fórsa would continue to champion the delivery of world class public services. “The world of work will change, as will society, and we must ensure that this is achieved equitably, and that decent work is protected in all parts of the economy, including in the public service.

“We demand more involvement and negotiation on change initiatives. We won’t be found wanting, but we won’t accept poor planning and we categorically reject outsourcing as a solution. Just look at the costs to taxpayers of the failed JobPath scheme in social protection,” he said.

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