RELEASE: Technology in the public sector and the future of government work

UC Berkeley Labor Center


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | January 10, 2023
Contact: Ana Fox-Hodess, afoxhodess@berkeley.edu

UC Berkeley report outlines challenges of getting technology right in the public sector

Comprehensive study highlights the crucial role workers play in effective public sector technology implementation

BERKELEY, CA — Three years since COVID-19 prompted a dramatic acceleration in the adoption of technology across the public sector, a new report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center takes stock of the mixed impact that government technologies have had on the public sector workforce and the public at-large. From the switch virtually overnight to online education to the unprecedented numbers of people attempting to access unemployment insurance and other public benefits, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that getting technology right in the public sector is a high-stakes challenge.

“For decades we’ve normalized a situation of severe resource scarcity in government, based in part on the misguided assumption that technology alone can transform government and solve inefficiencies,” explains report author Sara Hinkley. “The truth is that the implementation of privately developed and controlled technologies in the public sector has often been a lose-lose for public servants and the general public.”

Drawing on dozens of examples of public sector technology use across local, state, and federal government agencies, Hinkley’s comprehensive report, “Technology in the Public Sector and the Future of Government Work,” identifies how governments use technology, what drives technology adoption, and how these technologies impact public sector work and the nation’s twenty million public sector workers.

Key insights include:

  • Technology can potentially improve many aspects of government service: speed, reliability, accuracy, convenience, and even program outcomes.
  • Technological advances in secure data storage, data sharing, data analytics, and data visualization have potential to enhance government transparency and accountability.
  • Expanded technology use can also lead to deterioration of service quality and jeopardize civil liberties.
  • The government’s increasing use of advanced technologies like algorithms, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation for complex decision-making raises significant concerns about how these technologies might impact privacy, transparency, equity, and due process.
  • Fiscal pressures have led many government agencies to see technology as a way to maintain their core functions with fewer resources. But technology use could normalize the inadequacy of public staffing rather than resolving it.
  • The challenge of rapidly scaling up remote service delivery during the pandemic highlighted areas of profound underinvestment in the public sector, particularly in the area of technology.
  • As technology use expands, workers may experience automation as intensification: caseloads or performance metrics are increased, and new elements of work are added.
  • Heavy reliance on private contractors makes it much harder for agencies to ensure that technology implementation benefits the public.

The report also recommends three principles for the effective development and implementation of new government technology:

  • Transparency about the structure and performance of technologies that interact with the public or direct decisions and resources;
  • Accountability in assessing whether new technologies have fulfilled anticipated improvements in service quality, efficiency, productivity, etc. and clear mechanisms for feedback and course correction;
  • Involving public sector workers in the design and implementation of new technologies.

“Despite their experience and expertise, public sector workers have been mostly excluded from conversations about technology adoption in government,” says Hinkley. “But they’re the ones who know better than anyone what’s not working. We should be asking them what they need in order to do their jobs better and help us make good on the tremendous promise of technology for strengthening the ability of governments to serve their communities.”

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Founded in 1964, the UC Berkeley Labor Center works to address the most critical challenges affecting working families in California and across the nation. The Center provides timely, policy-relevant research on labor and employment issues and carries out training and education programs for labor leaders and students.