Rage Against the Routine: Public CIOs Have a Jobs Problem

The blast zone of the “automation bomb” is wider than we once imagined.

by / March 2017

Public CIOs have a jobs problem. It may not be their fault, but it is their problem. As the urgency grows about preserving and creating jobs in an era where human work is being displaced by software, CIOs live and work with the dissonance of technological optimism and sociological pessimism.

They are the advocates and architects of applying technologies to the work of government, based on information technology’s original promise — call it a value proposition, if you will — of trading automation for labor. Indeed, technology has helped squeeze efficiencies out of processes and brought much-needed capacity to public agencies during a protracted era when “doing more with less” was the watch phrase in government.

It foreshadowed where we are today. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, McKinsey and Co. affirmed its projections that 45 percent of all work could be eliminated by existing technologies, putting some $22 trillion in annual wages at risk in the U.S. Delegates also learned that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of students entering primary school will have jobs that do not yet exist.

Reducing headcount within government through technology is one thing, but the wholesale elimination of up to half of all jobs is the making of an unprecedented political crisis.

To the degree that public CIOs have the ear (and confidence) of their elected officials, they have the opportunity to help frame the magnitude of the change we are living through — and the policy discussions that must follow.

The blast zone of what McKinsey calls the “automation bomb” is wider than we once imagined.

It is not like elected officials didn’t see this coming. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy was prescient in declaring that the major domestic challenge of the era was to “maintain full employment at a time when automation … is replacing men.”

A half-century later, what was once seen as a threat to manual and skilled labor jobs is increasingly spilling over into office and knowledge work. Vulnerability to automation is less a matter of the color of your collar than the nature of the work. Machines are learning how to do routine work of all types, both manual and cognitive.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Amazon will hire 120,000 people in its heavily roboticized fulfillment centers across the country to do nonroutine work that machines have not learned to do (yet).

Thanks to advances in blockchain technologies that make 100 percent auditing possible, once-specialized fiscal disciplines from clerk to auditor are made routine by software. Even software engineers are feeling the pressure as their work becomes routine and a new generation of physicists in Silicon Valley works on the nonroutine challenge of mimicking the human brain in the race for machine learning and more fully realized artificial intelligence.

The slack amid these changing dynamics is taken up by the 30 million independent workers holding multiple jobs in the so-called gig economy who will show up in Labor Department statistics for the first time ever this May.

In contemplating a society with no work, governments in Norway and Ontario, Canada, are taking a fresh look at Universal Basic Income to sustain displaced workers. The venture-funded Y Combinator is running a five-year pilot with 500 Oakland, Calif., residents to better understand the real-world effects of this dystopian choice.

But in the real world, there is still a lot of work to do. It is nonroutine work. The work of human touch and the work of empathy. Not even the coming singularity can replace people at that.

There is a dearth of policy prescriptions to make sense of this. The task of sense-making is anything but routine — and that should be the work of policymakers in broad consultations with workers, unions, industry and educators. CIOs need to be part of that conversation, if only out of a sense of self-preservation.

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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