Digital public services ‘riddled’ with problems, says TUC

Digital public services ‘riddled’ with problems, says TUC
Written by Techbot

The UK’s increasingly digitised public services are plagued by design, governance and workplace issues that are undermining the government’s stated goal of improving efficiency, but can be alleviated by giving public sector workers a greater say in how new technologies are being developed, deployed and controlled

Sebastian Klovig Skelton


Published: 12 Jul 2023 16:45

The digitisation of public services in the UK is “riddled” with structural, organisational and political problems that are being exacerbated by a lack of engagement with public sector workers and their unions, according to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) report.

Written on behalf of the TUC by the Why Not Lab – a consultancy organisation that exclusively serves trade unions and public sector bodies – the report examines the trajectory of digitisation in public services, and presents recommendations for how to safeguard both workers’ rights in increasingly digitised workplaces, as well as the ultimate quality of services being provided to citizens.

The report is also designed to supplement the TUC’s efforts around new technologies in the workplace, including a March 2021 report titled Technology managing people: The worker experience, which warned of gaps in British law over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work; and its Dignity at work and the AI revolution manifesto from the same month, which called for meaningful consultation with workers around new technologies.

Highlighting the examples of the Post Office’s “scandalous” Horizon system, the “fundamentally flawed” design of the digital Universal Credit (UC) system and the digital transformation of courts under the Common Platform, the latest report said the aim of these digital systems is to streamline services and improve their overall efficiency.

“While the government believes that digital innovations will improve public service efficiency, other cost-cutting measures are in play: wage freezes, the reduction of staff, offices, job centres and courts, as well as the streamlining of services, the hiring of staff on fixed term contracts and the centralisation of many functions,” it said, adding that 2.1 million workers across the public sector earned less than £24,000 and therefore below the minimum wage, with nearly one in 10 claiming UC themselves.

“This begs the question: are the public services actually showing signs of increased efficiency? While the government maintains that the cost of Universal Credit [and other digital services] is far outweighed by the benefits, public service trade unions and workplace representatives that were interviewed as part of this report spoke of worsening work environments.”

Specifically, they reported high levels of staff turnover; having little time to train new recruits in how to use digital tools; a lack of meaningful consultation with workers about the new systems being deployed; the need for “double-filing” in both digital and analogue systems, which in turn is leading to increased stress levels, longer working hours and job dissatisfaction; increased time spent on administrative tasks; and musculoskeletal conditions.

Work backlogs

They also reported large work backlogs due to a mixture of staffing levels, system faults and private vendors’ failures to fulfil their contractual obligations.

“While most interviewees sympathise with the need to keep public services efficient, the transition to the new digital technologies is riddled with problems of a structural, organisational and political nature,” the report said.

Structurally, it added that the systems’ design process and agile roll-out means they are taken into use before they are fully complete and checked for errors, creating “detrimental effects” for the rights of both citizens and workers.

Organisationally, it said workers’ dignity, freedoms and autonomy are being further violated by a lack of transparency and meaningful consultation, which means systems are being rolled out “top-down” without their input.

“Politically, the cost-saving aims of ‘improving’ public services are partially sought through the digitisation of public services, but also through negative pay policies, lay-offs, office closures and more,” it said. “In addition, the increasing reliance on private sector solutions and the lack of involvement of the workers and/or their unions in this process are posing a threat to workers’ rights and inclusive and diverse labour markets.

“Privacy rights in relation to third-party access to sensitive data through the use of private sector developers and vendors is also a major concern, although not one explicitly mentioned by the interviewees.”


To deal with these issues, the report makes recommendations for unions in relation to national policies, collective bargaining and training.

In terms of national policy, it recommends proactively making public procurement contracts available to both unions and the public to get around information being withheld for reasons of “commercial sensitivity”, and giving public services the right to demand changes to systems if harms or faults are detected.

It also recommended making more information about algorithmic systems available, forcing suppliers to conduct and publish human rights impact assessments, and establishing an “inclusive” governance body manned by affected citizens and workers to manage the introduction of new technologies.

On collective bargaining, the report recommended that unions should push for “anti-commodification” clauses to ensure datasets containing workers’ personal details cannot be sold or transferred to third parties without their explicit consent, as well as additional clauses mandating the increased transparency and explainability of automated systems.

It added that further clauses related to the national policy recommendations should also be included in collective bargaining agreements, as well as clauses around limiting workplace surveillance, the right to training or lifelong learning, and the right of unions to organise remote or hybrid workers.

“To negotiate for national policy changes and/or collective agreements, and to monitor the deployment and effects of digital technologies effectively, unions and workplace reps must have the necessary know-how and know-what,” it said, adding that workers should have access to training courses that range from introductory to advanced.

The report concluded that unions will need to equip themselves with “the know-how and know-what” to protect people’s rights in the workplace.

“As the guardians of decent work, the unions have a key role to play in reshaping the use of digital technologies so workers’ rights, freedoms and autonomy are respected,” it said. 

“For public service unions, this endeavour will additionally be about safeguarding quality public services as more and more services are privatised and new digital technologies are developed by third parties. This creates a whole new dynamic, with muddled responsibilities between developers and deployers and a changing balance of power between all involved.”

In May 2023, Labour MP Mick Whitley introduced “a people-focused and rights-based” bill in Parliament to regulate the use of AI at work, the provisions of which are rooted in three assumptions: that everyone should be free from discrimination at work; that workers should have a say in decisions affecting them; and that people have a right to know how their workplace is using the data it collects about them.

Although 10-minute rule motions rarely become law, they are often used as a mechanism to generate debates on an issue and test opinion in the Parliament. As Whitley’s bill received no objections, it has been listed for a second reading on 24 November 2023.

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