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One Danger of Over Reliance on Artificial Intelligence: Process Debt

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
April 7, 2023

Forty-three percent of professionals admit to using ChatGPT in their work. Sixty-eight percent of these professionals hide their use of ChatGPT from their managers, writes Isobel O’Sullivan in a February 10, 2023 article on Tech.CO. I don’t know the exact figures for government workers, but based on some conversations and observations, many government employees use ChatGPT.

“Lawmakers are already using ChatGPT to help write speeches, and agencies have begun to investigate the countless other benefits of implementing the technology within existing processes, including assisting employees in communicating, streamlining workflows and increasing employees’ access to information.”

One example of a government AI-powered tool is the Department of Defense’s “AcqBot,” an artificial intelligence (AI) contract writing tool. AI-powered tools can enhance government process flows, such as automatically analyzing tax returns, tracking inventories and arranging government equipment repairs. Governments have many processes that can be streamlined and enhanced through AI-powered tools.

However, the rush to add AI to government operations poses ethical and technical concerns. While many have commented on the ethical issues and the possibility of AI taking away government jobs, few have considered the dangers of empowering government processes through AI. I have been involved in many process improvement projects in my twenty years in government. I have learned that automating a flawed process increases the harm of an imperfect process.

Process Debt

Process debt, like technical debt, refers to the long-term negative consequences of making short-term decisions in business processes. These decisions are usually made to expedite results or cut corners, and while they may yield immediate benefits, they often lead to complications, inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the future. Process debt is not only limited to project management but also extends to other areas of an organization, such as customer service, human resources and finance.

Process debt can be categorized into two types: intentional and unintentional. Intentional process debt results from conscious choices made by management to prioritize immediate gains. In contrast, unintentional process debt arises from a lack of understanding, poor communication or misaligned organizational goals.

The Problems of Process Debt in Government

Inefficient Service Delivery: Accumulated process debt can lead to bottlenecks, delays and inefficiencies in the delivery of government services. Accumulated process debt can result in longer waiting times, increased application processing times and dissatisfaction among citizens who rely on these services.

Increased Costs: Process debt can contribute to increased costs for government agencies, as they may need to invest additional resources to address inefficiencies, redundancies and errors. Process debt can strain already limited budgets and divert funds from other critical initiatives and services.

Reduced Public Trust: Process debt can undermine public trust in government institutions, as citizens may perceive these inefficiencies as a lack of competence or commitment to serving their needs. Process debt can lead to decreased public engagement, reduced compliance with government regulations and increased skepticism about government initiatives.

Hindered Innovation: Government agencies with significant process debt may need help to adapt to new technologies, methodologies and best practices, as outdated processes and systems burden them. Process debt can hinder the agencies’ ability to innovate, improve service delivery and respond to the evolving needs of citizens.

Regulatory and Legal Risks: Process debt can lead to non-compliance with regulations, as inefficient processes may result in errors, incomplete documentation or missed deadlines. Process debt can expose government agencies to regulatory scrutiny, potential fines and legal liabilities.

Impact on Employees: Process debt can harm government employees, who may be forced to work with cumbersome processes, outdated technology and inadequate resources. Process debt can lead to frustration, burnout and high turnover rates, further impacting the quality of government services.

How Overuse of AI Can Lead to Process Debt

Over-dependence on AI can result in reduced human oversight, leading to potential errors, biases and misinterpretations. Relying solely on AI without adequate human intervention and monitoring can result in mistakes that may not be identified and corrected promptly, thereby accumulating process debt.

Another danger of AI overdependence is the lack of transparency in business processes, making it challenging for teams to identify inefficiencies, address potential issues and improve processes over time. In addition, AI systems, particularly deep learning models, can often be described as “black boxes,” making it difficult for humans to understand their inner workings and decision-making processes.

AI-driven processes also suffer from inflexibility because AI models are typically trained on historical data and may struggle to adapt to new or unforeseen situations. As a result, the predictions and insights generated by AI processes can become increasingly disconnected from reality. Finally, the overuse of AI can result in skill atrophy among employees, as they become less engaged in specific tasks and lose the ability to perform them without the aid of AI.

Optimize Government Processes First Before Adding AI

AI can significantly improve government processes and provide better service delivery to citizens. However, government agencies will dramatically increase process debt in a rush to use tools like ChatGPT. AI offers excellent benefits, but human decision-making is vital in determining where and how to use AI.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/billbrantley/.

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