Few technologies have taken the world by storm the way artificial intelligence (AI) has over the past few years. AI and its many use cases have become a topic of public discussion no longer relegated to tech experts. AI—generative AI, in particular—has tremendous potential to transform society as we know it for good, boost productivity and unlock trillions in economic value in the coming years. AI’s value is not limited to advances in the private sector. When implemented in a responsible way—where the technology is fully governed, privacy is protected, and decision-making is transparent and explainable—AI in government has the power to usher in a new era of government services.

Such services can empower citizens and help restore trust in public entities by improving workforce efficiency and reducing operational costs in the public sector. On the backend, AI tools likewise have the potential to supercharge digital modernization in by, for example, automating the migration of legacy software to more flexible cloud-based applications, or accelerating mainframe application modernization.

Despite the many potential advantages, many government agencies are still grasping on how to implement AI and generative AI. In many cases, government agencies around the globe face a choice. They can either embrace the use of AI and its advantages, tapping into the technology’s potential to help improve the lives of the citizens they serve. Or they can stay on the sidelines and risk missing out on AI’s ability to help agencies more effectively meet their objectives.

To facilitate this kind of innovation, Joe Biden and the U.S. government recently announced a substantial AI research initiative by executive order, directing White House resources towards hiring and development. Concurrently, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently released updated guidance on how to mitigate risk in the use of government AI, signaling a growing interest in responsible research and partnerships.

Government agencies early to adopt solutions leveraging AI and automation offer concrete insights into the technology’s public sector benefits—whether modernizing the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax return processing or using automation to greatly improve the efficiency of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Health Supply Chain Program. Other successful AI deployments reach citizens directly, including public service virtual assistants like the ones created by the Ukrainian Embassy in the Czech Republic or the American immigration agency. And some AI algorithms have advanced public health initiatives: In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service used the technology to scan medical images and support the testing and development of new treatments.

And these government uses for the technology are just the beginning. The new wave of AI, with foundation models provided by generative AI, could represent the new major opportunity to put AI to work for governments and federal agencies.

AI in government: Three main areas of focus 

Getting there, however, requires providers to focus on the main areas where AI use cases can benefit local and federal governments—and their customers—first. In our view, there are three main areas.

1. Workforce transformation

The first is workforce transformation, or digital labor in government agencies. At all levels of governments, from national entities to local governments, public employees must be ready for the adoption of AI technologies. While that can mean hiring new talent like data scientists and software programmers, it should also mean providing existing workers with the training and continuous assessment they need to manage AI-related projects.

With this can come improved productivity, as technologies such as natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) hold the promise of relieving the need for heavy data set reading and analysis; for instance, automating aspects of the government procurement process to make it more effective. The goal is to free up time for public employees to engage in high value meetings, creative thinking and meaningful work. 

2. Citizen support

The second major focus in emerging AI applications must be citizen support. For AI to truly benefit society, the public sector needs to prioritize use cases that directly benefit citizens. There is potential for a variety of uses in the future—whether it’s providing information in real time, personalizing services based on a citizen’s particular needs, or hastening processes that have a reputation for being slow.

For example, anyone who has ever had to file paperwork, or file a claim knows the feeling all too well: Sitting in an office for hours, waiting while employees click through endless screens, hunting and pecking for information stored in different databases. What if AI’s ability to access, organize and leverage data could create new possibilities for improving government operations, even those already available online, by unlocking data across agencies to deliver information and services more intuitively and proactively?

3. Digital transformation

Third, AI models are also becoming a crucial component of the public sector’s digital transformation efforts. Governments are regularly held back from true transformation by legacy systems with tightly coupled workflow rules that require substantial effort and significant cost to modernize.

For example, public sector agencies can make better use of data by migrating certain technology systems to the cloud and infusing them with AI. AI-powered tools hold the potential to help with pattern detection in large stores of data and be able to write computer programs. This could benefit cost optimization and also strengthen cybersecurity, as it can help detect threats to national security quickly. This way, instead of seeking hard-to-find skills, agencies can reduce their skills gap and tap into evolving talent.

Commitment to responsible AI 

In IBM’s view, no discussion of government AI is complete without emphasizing the importance of the ethical use of the technology throughout its lifecycle of design, development, use, and maintenance—an attitude towards potential AI risk IBM has promoted in the industry for years. Along with healthcare organizations and financial services entities, government and public sector entities must strive to be seen as the most trusted institutions. That means humans should continue to be at the heart of the services delivered by government while monitoring for responsible deployment by relying on the five fundamental properties for trustworthy AI: explainability, fairness, transparency, robustness and privacy.

  • Explainability: An AI system’s ability to provide a human-interpretable explanation for its predictions and insights to the public in a way that does not hide behind technical jargon.
  • Fairness: An AI system’s ability to treat individuals or groups equitably, depending on the context in which the AI system is used, countering biases and addressing discrimination related to protected characteristics, such as gender, race, age, and veteran status.
  • Transparency: An AI system’s ability to include and share information on how it has been designed and developed and what data from which sources have fed the system.
  • Robustness: An AI system’s ability to effectively handle exceptional conditions, such as abnormalities in input to guarantee consistent outputs.
  • Privacy: An AI system’s ability to prioritize and safeguard consumers’ privacy and data rights and address existing regulations in the data collection, storage and access and disclosure.

If AI is implemented in a way that includes all the traits mentioned above, it can help both governments and citizens alike in new ways. Perhaps the biggest benefit to AI and foundation models is its range: It can extend to even the smallest of agencies. It can be used even in state and local governmental projects, such as using models to improve how employees and citizens search databases to find out more about policies or government-issued benefits. By staying informed, responsible, and well-equipped on AI, the public sector can help shape a brighter and better future for all. 

IBM is committed to unleashing the transformative potential of foundation models and generative AI to help address high-stakes challenges. We provide open and targeted value creating AI solutions for businesses and public sector institutions. IBM watsonx™, our integrated AI and data platform, embodies these principles, offering a seamless, efficient, and responsible approach to AI deployment across a variety of environments. IBM stands ready to empower governmental organizations in the age of AI. Let’s embrace the age of AI value creation together.

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