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State of the art in the use of emerging technologies in the public sector

Public sector can become smarter if it embraces the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence.

Digitisation is viewed as a new source of growth, efficiency and relevance in today’s increasingly digital world. Governments and public sector organisations are embracing new and emerging technologies for developing innovative approaches to policy making, service delivery and public value creation. Building on the insights and data collected from 20 OECD member and partner countries, this working paper tries to capture the current state of the art on public sector adoption of emerging technologies, with a specific focus on AI and blockchain. It highlights some of the associated challenges and opportunities and provide a preliminary set of policy guidance.

Key findings in this document are:

- Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain hold considerable potential for making the public sector smarter, i.e. more agile, efficient, user-friendly and, as a result, more trustworthy. For instance, AI can be used to deliver more effectively personalised services and to foster citizen engagement with public institutions, through the design of human-centric interfaces; enhance operational efficiency and the quality of administrative procedures through increased automation of physical and digital tasks; and, to enable greater predictive capabilities for better decision making and policy outcomes, through the use of algorithms designed to uncover trends and patterns in large volumes of data. 

- Governments can play multiple roles to strengthen national research capacity and translate technological progress into public sector applications that deliver public value.

- Governments worldwide are experimenting with emerging technologies to better meet the needs of public-service users and steward coherent use of resources to maximise public value. These projects increasingly centre around the applications of AI and more recently of blockchain. They fall under four broad areas: (i) enhancing the quality of welfare services; (ii) increasing operational efficiency and security; (iii) preserving the environment, natural capital and climate resilience; and (iv) making data-driven policy decisions for better governance. 

- Governments face multiple challenges in how to incorporate these emerging technologies for public purposes. A review of existing practices has identified three types of challenge, including: technical and practical challenges, resource and capacity constraints, typically inadequate investment and funding, and low digital literacy and skills shortage in the public sector; and institutional, legal and cultural barriers, notably regulatory gaps and insufficient political and institutional buy-in. Among these, the absence of common standards and suitable legal frameworks are the most quoted obstacles, in part due to growing concerns around fairness, transparency, data privacy and accountability/legal liability arising from the introduction of AI and blockchain. 

- A paradigm shift will be essential to adopt systematic and whole-of-organisation approaches to the digital transformation of the public sector. Meaningful, sustainable and resilient use of emerging technologies within governments and public sector organisations requires strategic vision and leadership commitment, suitable organisational and governance frameworks, new working methods and capabilities to support agile and efficient design, implementation and delivery of public policies and services. Notably, political support and engagement with the private sector have been identified as two major enablers for public sector adoption of emerging technologies. 
 

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