The Data Briefing: Will Artificial Intelligence Tools Replace or Augment Federal Employees?

Sep 20, 2017

A Washington, D.C. think tank recently released reports advocating using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to reorganize the federal government. There has been a larger debate about the effects of automation on the private sector and the American economy, but this appears to be one of the few reports focusing on the federal government. According to the think tank, the U.S. government “could yield $23.9 billion in reduced personnel costs and a reduction in the size of the federal workforce by 288,000.” The authors of this report argue that the real value of AI is in replacing federal workers.

An earlier report from a large consulting firm argues that AI should augment the federal workforce:

Agencies today face new choices about whether some work should be fully automated, divided among people and machines, or performed by people but enhanced by machines. Our latest report, AI-augmented government, conservatively estimates that simply automating tasks that computers already routinely do could free up 96.7 million federal government working hours annually, potentially saving $3.3 billion. At the high end, we estimate that AI technology could free up as many as 1.2 billion working hours every year, saving $41.1 billion.”

So, what type of federal jobs could be replaced by AI? It depends on five factors:

  1. “Technical feasibility or the ability of current AI tools to perform the work.”
  2. “Costs to automate.”
  3. “The relative scarcity, skills, and cost of workers who might otherwise do the activity.”
  4. “Benefits of automation beyond labor-cost substitution.”
  5. “Regulatory and social-acceptance considerations.”
Automation of business workflows and processes with businessman.

— NicoElNino/iStock/Thinkstock

Based on these factors, the most susceptible types of jobs to be replaced by AI involve predictable physical work, data processing, and data collection. Jobs not currently ripe for AI automation (but may be soon) are unpredictable physical work or stakeholder interactions. The least susceptible job types are the ones where federal employees are applying expertise and/or managing others.

Therefore, it is not a binary question of the job being replaced by AI tools or not. Rather, the AI replacement/augmentation is a continuum. Jobs that are completely predictable and follow a well-defined process are most likely to be replaced by AI tools. Jobs that rely on judgment in an unpredictable environment while managing people could benefit from AI augmentation but will not be replaced by AI tools. You can see an analysis of 800+ occupations by the potential for automation. This analysis relies on the five factors to determine the probability for AI replacement. According to this analysis, administrative and government occupations face only a 31% chance for AI replacement which is the lowest of the service-providing industries.

An interesting trend in government that argues for the augmentation of federal workers rather than significant replacement is the need for agile government decision-making. According to a recent study, government decision-makers must operate in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. AI tools can help with the need for more sophisticated prediction abilities that help decision makers navigate the VUCA world. However, there is still the need for imagination, creativity, and innovation. Traits that AI tools have not yet demonstrated and may not develop for many years from now.

If you are a federal worker and want to know if your job is in danger of being replaced by AI tools, consider the five factors. How much of your job depends on your expertise, the ability to manage people and the unpredictability of your work tells you where you fall on the AI augmentation/replacement continuum. The chances are that you could benefit from AI augmentation to help you better navigate the VUCA environment of your federal work.


Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Visit this blog every week to learn how data is transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about government data, please contact me via email.

Dr. William Brantley) is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.