Outdated IT infrastructure could hamper public sector AI plans

Whitehall, the home of UK public sector and government bodies, pictured at sunrise.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The UK government will need to make big changes if it's to reap the benefits of AI within the public sector, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

While AI isn't yet widely used across government, 70% of departments and bodies surveyed by the audit office said they were piloting or planning to deploy AI tools.

A raft of departments said they view the technology as an opportunity to automate services, such as as application processes, or to draft and summarize official texts.

However, the NAO warned that plans are threatened by a series of problems, from unsatisfactory business processes to aging IT infrastructure, risks, skills gaps, and data issues.

"AI offers government opportunities to transform public services and deliver better outcomes for the taxpayer," said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

"To deliver these improved outcomes, government needs to make sure its overall programme for AI adoption tackles long standing issues, including data quality and aging IT, as well as builds in effective governance of the risks."

Nearly three-quarters (70%) of the bodies surveyed told the NAO they had difficulties attracting and retaining staff with AI skills, with the audit office warning that pay levels were too low to attract the staff needed.

In October 2022, there were 4,000 digital, data, and technology vacancies across the government.

Public sector bodies weary of AI risks

Several departments said there was a lack of clarity around legal liability, while they also had concerns about risks of unreliable or inaccurate outputs from AI, for example due to bias and discrimination, and risks to privacy, data protection, or cyber security.

They said they needed greater support to deal with these barriers and to share knowledge about how AI is being used.

Similarly, the controls currently in place for digital and technology spend across government don't provide assurance that AI risks have been mitigated, the NAO noted, with the government still working on its standards, guidance, and assurance processes to support adoption of AI and manage risks.

The government needs to establish which department has overall ownership and accountability for delivery of the strategy for AI adoption in the public sector, the report advised, and must set out appropriate roles and responsibilities for those who need to contribute.


The government began work to develop a draft strategy for AI adoption in the public sector last year, setting out its ambitions for realizing the opportunities that AI presents for public services.

In this year's Spring Budget, it also announced funding for a number of productivity initiatives involving AI.

However, the NAO said these plans lack realistic measures to tackle aging IT systems, address skills gaps, improve data quality, and create an AI implementation plan with performance metrics.

"Without prompt action to address barriers to making effective use of AI within public services, government will not secure the benefits it has identified," Davies said.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has also called for greater investment in this area. 

The organization said budget cuts over the last decade mean many public services will still struggle to deliver value and improve productivity despite the integration of AI tools.

"Fourteen years of budget cuts have left us with aging and inadequate equipment. NHS staff are telling us it can take 15 minutes to fire up a computer," the TUC said.

"Imposing new IT systems into this equipment without staff consultation and training will be a disaster. We need proper consultation with staff and unions, investment into the workforce and new AI laws to protect workers."

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.