The financial outlook for local government in England is uncertain as the country faces a period of economic recovery from Covid.
The pandemic has caused a sharp decrease in revenue for local authorities due to the closure of some non-essential businesses and the resulting loss of income. This has put considerable pressure on local government budgets, as they have to make up for the shortfall in revenue.
That’s the sort of thing I have often discussed in this column and it is broadly the sort of thing I would say. But, confession time: that’s not me. It’s ChatGPT, the new artificial intelligence tool that produces text in response to natural language prompts: in this case me asking ‘what is the financial outlook for English local government?’
I’d like to think my analysis of local government’s financial prospects would have brought a greater depth and nuance and that my prose style is slightly more elegant, though it’s arguably a matter of degree and, of course, ChatGPT is a lot quicker (and cheaper) than its real life rivals. But there’s more at stake here than whether The MJ could dispense with its human columnists.
Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionise local government. AI can be used to automate mundane administrative tasks, improve the accuracy of decision-making, reduce costs, and provide more efficient services. AI could also be used to analyse data to identify trends and patterns and make predictions and recommendations to help local governments develop better policies. AI could also help local authorities to better understand the needs of their constituents and tailor services accordingly.
Actually, that wasn’t me either. ChatGPT again. But I don’t think it has got it quite right. It is listing the benefits in relation to local public service delivery, not to local government. They’re not the same.
If we think about the effective delivery of public services then of course we should be looking at the potential of AI to make them faster, more efficient and more accurate. And it’s not just about doing what we already do better, but about opening up new possibilities: for instance, by using data in ways that have previously been impossible. Councils should certainly be thinking hard about these issues and how they build their capacity around them (and of course, many councils are doing just this).
Government, however, is an irreducibly human activity in that it’s about the realisation of who we are and who we want to be and it is performed through human connection. John Stuart Mill wrote: ‘Let us remember, then… that political institutions… are the work of men; owe their origin and their whole existence to human will… In every stage of their existence they are made what they are by human voluntary agency.’
That’s not just a description of the nature of political institutions but of their purpose. Councils are local democratic bodies through which people and communities can articulate, contest and realise their aspirations. The messy human inefficiency involved is not simply an impediment to this (though it sometimes feels like it) but part of the point of it: a feature, not a bug. Or, to put it another way, technology can help us with the means of public policy but it cannot, or should not, tell us its ends.
This is not intended to be an excessively romantic argument. We should embrace the potential for AI to positively transform the delivery of public services, but as we do so we should be equally clear about the areas we choose to reserve for our inefficient, flawed humanity.
This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.