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Skills to Embrace AI and Data Science in Public Administration—Part I

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
March 10, 2023

The application of AI technology has seen exponential growth thanks to more efficient and accessible ways to collect and analyze massive datasets. However, data science is still relatively new to public service. While already present in many aspects of citizens’ lives, governments’ ability to harness AI and data science to better serve citizens is just beginning.

The government provides a lot of services, creating the opportunity to apply data science in many different ways. The growing adoption of AI applications has led to greater calls for regulation. Policy-makers should understand both the promises and pitfalls of AI, including its many ethical considerations. Governments around the world are at the core of both regulating it and optimizing its growth. Gaga Boskovic advisor, Government and Public Policy, at CIFAR, a Canadian-based research organization supported by the governments of Canada, notes: “We’re not talking about science fiction dystopias with robots taking over the planet. This is about getting up to speed with what’s actually happening now and how it will impact our future”.

In this regard, the report: Rebooting Regulation: Exploreing the Future of Ai Policy in Canada states that many policymakers lack awareness of current AI capabilities and applications and their associated policy implications. For this reason, there is an increasing need to build capacity for thinking about emerging technologies among policymakers across all sectors to ensure AI is developed, implemented and governed in ways that will align with public interest objectives.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data technologies may still be in their infancy, but there is no doubt they will loom large in the years and decades to come. Karen Day, warns of the importance of building civil service capability to ensure all opportunities are taken advantage of and the pitfalls are avoided. She also points out that training schemes in this area should begin with leaders and managers.

Policymakers at the international, national and subnational levels are faced with more complex and interconnected policy issues that require a lot of evidence. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic epitomizes the intricate nature of today’s great social problems. This complexity comes from the process of social construction that determines what and how public problems are assumed; but also, it emanates from the material causes inherent to the problems; as well as the fact that they go beyond the territorial, sectoral and temporal references of organization and action of governments. In other words, problems do not respect nations, states or other political-administrative borders; being multi-causal, they cut across policy compartments or areas; and they involve causes, processes and consequences of long duration that transcend the timespans of government administrations.

According to OECD, the challenge is to be able to foster informed judgement and to ensure that the public sector is equipped with the right skill-set to nurture evidence-informed policy making. The civil service needs critical appraisal skills, in order to assess the provenance of evidence, its robustness, the fit with the policy questions, its relevance and impact, as well as meeting ethical standards, while feeding into institutional set ups that take into account wider political constraints.

In this context, it is necessary to consider how prepared public managers are to ensure that the potential of AI, and specifically data science, is critically considered and improves policy making. Also, what are the key skills and competencies in this area for policy makers?

In the opinion of Lene Topp and Florian Schwendinger, evidence users (e.g. policymakers) and providers (e.g. researchers) are faced with an urgent need to increase their capacities to rise to the global challenges, to deliver innovative and future-proof policy solutions and to reinforce trust in both democracy and science.

For OECD, we cannot expect all public servants to become professional-level data experts capable of developing algorithms to mine extremely large repositories of unstructured data. However, we should aspire for all public servants to be “data literate”—that is that they can appreciate the value and importance of data, are able to work with data experts and that data and analysis are not an “after thought” as they too often have been in the past (See: “Skills for a High Performing Civil Service”, 2017).  Evidence based policy has been a long-held mantra of government. The data revolution provides new opportunities to ensure that information, evidence and data are used to drive decision making—not opinions, assumptions, hunches and guesses.

Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He is co-founder of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS).  He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS+ Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT.  He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias

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