Technology in the public sector and the future of government work

  • Sara-Hinkley
Sara Hinkley

Executive Summary

More than 20 million people—about 15% of the United States workforce—work for a local, state, or federal government entity. A majority of these work in local government (e.g., schools, police and fire departments, county social service agencies), about a third in state government (e.g., universities, tax bureaus, state hospitals), and the remainder in federal government (e.g., post offices, national parks). Millions more work for private employers who receive most or all of their funding from public contracts or grants.

With the exception of the military, government has been generally slower to adopt technology than the private sector. Reasons for this include lack of funding, higher public scrutiny, complex contracting processes, lack of internal IT capacity, and agency fragmentation. The slow pace of technology adoption in some cases has led to both costly and cumbersome service provision; the vision of digital government outlined by federal policymakers in the 1990s has yet to be realized. Greater use of technology by governments holds a lot of promise for both workers and the public: it can remove some of the time-consuming and glitchy processes that frustrate everyone, allow workers to focus on the complexity inherent in providing public services, make government more accessible to more people, and get assistance more quickly into the hands of people who need it.

But there are reasons to be attentive to how technologies are rolled out, especially as the recent jump in technology funding opens up the floodgates of consultants and contractors pitching their products. Technology cannot be used to paper over the lack of investment in the public sector that has characterized the past two decades. In fact, technology presents the greatest risk when it’s simply layered on top of already overwhelmed workers and processes, because there is no capacity built in for evaluation and recalibration to ensure that the technology is working as intended. Within the public sector there is enormous variation in size, resource capacity, mission, and political and social context, all of which affect whether and how technology is implemented. But nearly all public sector employers have spent the past decades watching revenues fail to keep up with the costs of providing government services. Since 2008, public sector employment has been stagnant or declining, while private sector employment has grown by 12% and the U.S. population—a measure of demand for government services—by nearly 7%.

Some technologies also present inherent risks, such as those intended to replace or supplement human decision-making. Research suggests that people are reluctant to make different decisions than those suggested by analytics designed to supplement human decision-making, sometimes leading to worse outcomes than those the technology was intended to remediate. There has been considerable evidence that advanced technologies can replicate or even exacerbate racial and ethnic biases. Governments should be deliberate and cautious as they adopt such technologies. Involving workers in the scoping, design, implementation, and evaluation of advanced technologies in particular can help safeguard public trust. Technology as a cost-saving measure must be implemented within a framework that recognizes the role public workers play in assessing whether systems are serving the people the programs are intended to serve.

How governments use technology

The public sector covers an enormous set of occupations and activities, and technology plays many different roles within that landscape. This report sorts technologies into five overlapping categories:

  • Manual task automation: technologies that replace physical processes or tasks performed by a person. This includes such technology as document scanners, mail sorting machines, digital printers, “smart” parking meters, transcription software, driverless transit, robotic vacuums, and automated toll collectors.
  • Process automation: technologies that process information or automate interactions between workers and clients. This includes e-Government processes like online payments and benefit applications, as well as more complex automation such as customer service chatbots and “robotic process automation” (RPA). More complex process automation technologies may use artificial intelligence to “learn” from interactions, rather than relying entirely on human programming.
  • Automated decision-making systems: the use of complex computer programming to replace or augment human decision-making. This group of technologies includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics. By processing large amounts of data and using human-programmed algorithms or more complex artificial intelligence, ADM systems generate decisions and assessments.
  • Integrated data systems: integrated data systems and networked cloud storage allow vast amounts of public data to support automation and automated decision-making technologies, as well as provide public access to information about government activities and enable more robust performance evaluation and management.
  • Electronic monitoring: technologies such as cameras and drones may be used to enforce laws or regulations and feed information into other government processes. Monitoring technologies built into software used by workers can also enable new forms of performance evaluation.

Key findings on government technology use:

  • There are many examples of innovative agencies using cutting-edge tech, but it is generally true that governments have been slower to modernize than the private sector. Financial constraints, reliance on external contractors, limited in-house IT expertise, and the challenges of providing equitable services to millions of people are just some of the most significant constraints faced by public technology adopters.
  • Process automation is widely used by governments, and much of it has made public services easier for people to access and while freeing up workers from often overwhelming amounts of paperwork. But there is still much to negotiate about how to serve clients with limited access to electronic services, and how to integrate technology with the complex and idiosyncratic knowledge that humans (caseworkers, counselors, parole officers) use every day to provide effective and personalized support.
  • Advanced technologies—algorithms, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation—have begun to change some public jobs significantly, either augmenting or replacing some human decision-making, especially in areas of public safety and welfare services. Community and civil liberties advocates are concerned about government’s increasing reliance on technologies for complex decision-making and monitoring.

Drivers of technology adoption

In the public sector there are many different (and often overlapping) motivations for adopting new technologies, which in turn shape the design of the tech, the goals of implementation, and how these systems are evaluated. Nothing about the process of change is inevitable; it is highly dynamic and contingent.

Given these complex structures, this report looks at four driving forces underlying the expansion of technology in the public sector:

  • Efficiency and cost reduction. In many areas of government, per capita revenue has declined over time as a result of tax-cutting politics, forcing governments to figure out how to provide services in an increasingly constrained environment. Promises that technology can increase efficiency and reduce labor and other costs carry a lot of weight in this context. On other hand, prolonged austerity has constrained funding for technology and other infrastructure.
  • Performance. Technology is framed as a core element of promises to make government serve people better and reinstill confidence in government. Technology can potentially improve many aspects of government service: speed, reliability, accuracy, convenience, and even program outcomes (although digitization or automation can also lead to deterioration of service quality).
  • Transparency and accountability. Technological advances in secure data storage, data sharing, data analytics, and data visualization have the potential to enhance government transparency and accountability. Increased data accessibility allows citizens to understand how resources are being used and whether programs are effective. Transparency is a necessary step toward accountability; advocates for robust data sharing hope it will enable the public to hold their governments accountable to specific objectives and values.
  • Crises. Crises can offer important pivotal moments for innovation—and in the case of COVID-19, large amounts of funding for new technologies—but they can also leave agencies too overwhelmed to incorporate technology strategically. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated the adoption of technology in the public sector, as agencies had to figure out how to quickly pivot to offering services while complying with public health orders. As the pandemic unfolded and unprecedented numbers of people needed government services, the public sector’s outdated technological infrastructure was exposed along with other areas of underinvestment.

Key findings on technology drivers:

  • Technology use has allowed many government agencies to restructure cumbersome processes, becoming more user-friendly and increasing productivity by allowing workers to focus on more complex tasks.
  • The fiscal and workload pressures faced by governments have led many agencies to see technology as a way to bridge the deficit of resources needed to adequately perform their core functions. Technology use can normalize the inadequacy of public staffing rather than resolving it. Chatbots might allow clients to interact with a system 24 hours a day instead of waiting in line in a benefits office and never getting to the front, but if the chatbot is ultimately unable to provide entitled benefits, technology has provided only the illusion of better service.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a wave of technology adoption across the public sector, in some cases hastening already planned transformations. Areas like education, where there has typically been significant skepticism about the role of technology, saw an explosion of “edtech” vendors eager to capitalize on schools’ experience with using technology for remote learning. The apparent permanency of hybrid and remote work is likely to continue to drive increased automation, monitoring of workers, and reliance on cloud-based data systems.
  • The public sector must contend with complicated policy, social, ethical, and legal contexts that don’t similarly constrain private sector actors. Public sector technology projects are accountable to a more diverse set of stakeholders (often with diverse needs) than private employers. Values of transparency and fairness make adopting new technologies much more complex for the public sector, which must ensure that its services are accessible to everyone and accountable to a broad set of public values.
  • The public sector has struggled to attract and sustain internal IT expertise, and has often relied on outsourcing many IT functions; this has led to a significant reliance on “govtech” companies and consultants. Building internal IT capacity could help address some of the cost overruns and poor outcomes associated with large technology projects.

Impacts on work and workers

The extent to which technology will displace workers or fundamentally change workplace dynamics is uncertain and will vary across the public sector. There are many logistical, ethical, legal, institutional, and social dynamics that affect the trajectory of technology adoption. The growing adoption of complex technologies is likely to restructure work processes as well as to reshape the interactions between workers and the public. Whether these changes ultimately benefit or harm workers will depend significantly on how this restructuring is managed.

This report looks at four categories of impacts on public sector workers:

  • Employment impacts: when technology is introduced into a workplace, tasks are transformed and redistributed, possibly reducing the need for some occupations and increasing demand for other types of work. It is hard to attribute job fluctuations to technology directly—especially given the cyclical nature of government funding—but this report discusses occupations where automation has likely contributed to declining employment, as well as growing occupations that require more technical skills to oversee and manage computerized processes, including providing direct IT services.
  • Job complexity: Working with new technologies may require new skills, which aren’t always accompanied by training or the time to adapt. Automating technologies may take over the more mundane aspects of work, making jobs more complex and rewarding for workers. But more advanced technologies—such as automated decision-making systems—may have the opposite effect, taking over complex thinking tasks and leaving workers to simply verify outcomes.
  • Managerial control: incorporating new technologies can lead to work intensification and stress for workers if the tech does not produce the expected efficiency or performance improvements, leaving workers to make up the difference. When tech is adopted without sufficient understanding of how work is actually performed, service quality can suffer. New technologies can also permit additional worker surveillance; chatbot technology can include real-time feedback to workers on their tone and speed during customer interactions, information that feeds into a workers’ performance evaluation.
  • Outsourcing: Bringing in new technologies often involves an increased role for private contractors, with the outsourcing of both the development and implementation of new tech as well as increasing reliance on private entities to perform even highly sensitive public functions. Technologies like cloud-based storage and virtual call centers can facilitate the outsourcing of jobs to private contractors by enabling work to be done from anywhere and shifting tasks out of established job descriptions.

Key findings on worker impacts:

  • Technologies have taken over some of the tasks performed by government workers, predominantly in areas involving basic paperwork-processing and financial transactions. Occupations like clerks and secretaries have been declining for several years and are projected to continue to decline, likely in part because of technological changes. The growing automation of government processes and adoption of more complex technologies has likely contributed to the increase in higher-level business and financial occupations and computer-related occupations.
  • The growth of complex technologies has begun to restructure work in significant ways, raising fundamental questions about how technology changes responsibility for decision-making and who is responsible for overseeing and fixing the inevitable malfunctions, mistakes, and negative impacts of digitized processes. Workers often feel stressed and uncertain as their jobs are transformed. They value the improvements technology can bring, but they also see technology projects rolled out without a clear plan for training and worker involvement, without clear expectations of workers, and without internal IT capacity adequate to managing the impacts of technology on the lives of clients.
  • Despite the relatively high share of public sector workers represented by a union, technological solutions are still frequently developed without involving workers. Governments are just beginning to put policies and regulations in place to manage the impacts of technology on citizens, but there are few examples of such policies addressing the impacts on workers.

People who go into public service often have aspirations to improve people’s lives, and are concerned about how technology can deepen existing inequities, make it harder for people to access critical services, and jeopardize the trust between citizens and their government. The possibilities for technology to greatly improve public services are significant, and recent public investments in infrastructure and internal technology capacity development present an important opportunity. A high road approach to this rapidly expanding use of technology will require policies and regulations that bring transparency, accountability, evaluation, and worker and client voices into the process of designing and implementing technology.


Read the full report.

Suggested citation: Hinkley, Sara. 2022. Technology in the Public Sector and the Future of Government Work. Berkeley: UC Berkeley Labor Center.