• The government has identified that artificial intelligence could deliver substantial productivity gains and transform public services.
  • NAO’s survey of government bodies found that AI was not yet widely used across government, but 70% of surveyed bodies were piloting or planning AI.
  • Achieving wide-scale benefits will require changes to business processes, as well as tackling ageing IT infrastructure, risks, skills gaps, and data issues.

AI presents the government with opportunities to transform public services, potentially delivering billions of pounds in productivity savings, a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) says.

In 2023 the government began work to develop a draft strategy for AI adoption in the public sector. It sets out its ambitions for realising the opportunities that AI presents for public services. In the Spring Budget 2024, the government announced funding for a number of productivity initiatives involving AI.

The NAO’s report, Use of artificial intelligence in government, considers how effectively government has set itself up to maximise AI opportunities. It found that the draft AI adoption strategy is at an early stage and does not yet set out overall ownership and accountability for delivery, funding, or an implementation plan with performance metrics.

The NAO goes on to warn that achieving wide-scale benefits will require not just adoption of new technology but also significant changes in business processes and corresponding workforce changes. Gains will only be realised if government ensures its overall programme for AI adoption is ambitious and supported by a realistic plan to tackle its ageing IT systems, addresses skills gaps and improves data quality.

NAO’s survey of government bodies found that AI was not yet widely used across government, with just over a third of respondents (37%) having already deployed AI, with typically one or two use cases.

The survey suggests that government is increasing its AI activity. Nearly three quarters (70%) of government bodies responding to the survey are piloting or planning AI, with typically four use cases being explored per body. Examples include departments using AI to analyse digital images, to automate routine checks as part of application processes, and to draft or summarise text.

Government also needs to tackle key barriers to AI adoption in the public sector. For example, government bodies surveyed noted difficulties attracting and retaining staff with AI skills, and lack of clarity around legal liability. 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.

Government bodies noted the importance of support to address these barriers and to share knowledge about how AI is being used. The controls in place for digital and technology spend across government do not provide assurance that AI risks have been mitigated: Government is still developing its standards, guidance and assurance processes to support adoption of AI and manage risks. It has plans to publish further guidance, update its digital and technology spend controls and further embed assurance into processes for procuring AI.

“AI offers government opportunities to transform public services and deliver better outcomes for the taxpayer.

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

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

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO said:

Read the full report

Use of artificial intelligence in government

Notes for editors

  1. The government’s draft strategy for AI adoption in the public sector sets four aims:
    a) the UK public sector will be world leading in safe, responsible and transparent use of AI to improve public services and outcomes.
    b) the public will benefit from services that have been transformed by AI and will have confidence that the government’s use of AI is responsible.
    c) public and civil servants will have the tools, information and skills they need to use AI to deliver better outcomes.
    d) all public organisations will be more efficient and productive through AI adoption and have the foundations in place to innovate with the next wave of technologies.
  2. As part of this report, the NAO surveyed 89 government bodies including the main government departments, and the majority of arm’s-length bodies with annual operational expenditure over approximately £83 million. The 87 government bodies who responded provided information about deployment of AI, and their future plans. They also responded to other questions including barriers to adoption of AI, and support needed.