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New Jersey Co-Creates AI Strategy With Public-Sector Staff

To build an ethical framework for AI in state government, New Jersey is surveying its employees to engage them in the process of creating a system that uses AI to enhance services and empower workers.

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Adobe Stock/oulaphone_00168
Last week the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service released the results of its annual survey assessing the satisfaction of the federal government workforce. With 2 million civilian workers, the federal government is our nation’s largest employer. Public professionals gave their agencies a 47.7 out of 100 for their willingness to use the results of the survey to make the government a better place to work. This number actually represents an improvement over last year.

These results highlight the need for a new approach to modernizing government. By directly engaging public-sector workers in AI adoption and really listening to their responses, as New Jersey is doing, we can create a more collaborative and innovative environment that not only enhances public services but also improves job satisfaction and empowers our workforce.

Artificial intelligence, particularly generative AI with its ability to create and analyze language, images and text, represents a potentially transformative set of technologies. Implementing AI can help to make the government smarter, more efficient and more responsive to the needs of residents. Just as spreadsheets revolutionized office work in the 1980s and the Internet transformed service delivery in the 2000s, AI could usher in a new era of data-driven, personalized and proactive government in the 2020s and beyond.

In New Jersey, we are already turning to AI to supply quick, high-quality responses to residents’ questions submitted around the clock to Every response from our chatbot is reviewed by a human in our Business Action Center. We are also using AI to help our call center operators get answers to questions about the Anchor property tax rebate program so that they can respond faster to residents. Just last week the federal Secretary of Labor celebrated New Jersey’s online unemployment insurance application system as a model for other states to follow. We used generative AI to rewrite and simplify forms, shaving dozens of minutes off the time it now takes to apply for this benefit. And we are using AI to provide customized advice to job seekers and those wanting to learn what training they should do to prepare for in-demand jobs. These are just a few of the ways AI could enhance public services.

However, the successful adoption of AI in the public sector is far from guaranteed. In order to use artificial intelligence responsibly and ethically, in ways that safeguard people’s privacy, minimize the risk of bias and realize the power of these tools, we should be knowledgeable about what AI can and cannot do well.

Central to responsible AI use is engaging public-sector workers — the people who will be using AI tools and are deeply knowledgeable about the programs and populations they serve — in the process of designing and adopting these technologies.

Public employees can’t just be the passive recipients of AI tools and mandates handed down from above. They need to be active participants in shaping how AI is developed, tested and used to support their missions. Everyone can use generative AI, which is driven by plain language directions. Yet in a recent report by Salesforce, 6 out of 10 IT professionals in government reported a lack of AI skills. If that represents tech-savvy staff, how much less proficiency is there among non-technical workers?

Unfortunately, organizations often overlook this critical human element when pursuing AI. In New Jersey, we are charting a different path. Gov. Phil Murphy has committed to training our public workforce in artificial intelligence, understanding its complexities and how to use it effectively and responsibly to serve the public.

To prepare for that training, New Jersey will be the first state to launch a comprehensive survey of public-sector employees’ knowledge, attitudes and interests around AI. Answers to the voluntary and anonymous 10-minute survey will inform the state’s AI upskilling plans and pilot projects.

Throughout the month of June, New Jersey will be inviting executive branch employees from about 28 agencies to share their views on AI. The survey asks about employees’ current awareness and use of generative AI tools, interest in learning more, preferred training formats, top use cases and key concerns to address. By directly engaging workers up front, using their responses to inform training and upskilling for staff, New Jersey aims to co-create an AI strategy that supports and empowers our public professionals to serve residents.

We believe that involving our workers in the design and governance of AI systems, and empowering them to experiment with AI through an innovation-friendly culture, is a model for the public and private sectors alike to follow.

Staff who work with state systems every day can help identify high-value use cases for AI, provide input on training data and model requirements, spot potential issues during testing, and give feedback to improve systems over time. When public-sector workers are engaged as co-creators, AI initiatives are more likely to deliver real value and earn buy-in.

While a survey is one of the easiest ways to reach our large workforce, interviews, focus groups, town halls, and other feedback mechanisms can all help ensure that AI is designed and deployed in ways that empower rather than alienate the public workforce and ensure we are designing technology to serve our workforce and the public interest.

The Partnership for Public Service’s survey results underscore the need for a more collaborative approach to transforming government. By putting our public servants at the center of AI adoption, as New Jersey is doing, we can create a more empowering work environment while enhancing government services. As we harness AI’s potential to revolutionize government, let us remember that success lies in the knowledge and contributions of the dedicated people who serve our communities every day.

Beth Simone Noveck is the chief AI strategist for the state of New Jersey. Allison Chris Myers is the chair and CEO of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.