Robotcaseworkers – threat or opportunity?

More and more Swedish municipalities are looking at the possibility of letting robots take over administrative tasks, as a way of helping meet the challenges of the future. But among the actors concerned, there are different views on the introduction of new, digital colleagues.

Daniel Toll PhD student at the Department of Management and Engineering Daniel Toll, PhD student at the Division ofInformation Systems and Digitalization, Linköping University. 

Sweden’s welfare system faces big challenges due to demographic changes – that is to say, an aging population. According to Statistics Sweden (SCB), the number of Swedes in their 80s is expected to increase by 47 percent during the coming decade. As well as increased costs and lower revenue for Swedish municipalities, this means that there will be greater demand for welfare services. For this reason, more and more Swedish municipalities are looking at the possibility of letting software robots take over administrative tasks, as a way of helping meet the challenges of the future.

Daniel Toll, PhD student at the Division of Information Systems and Digitalization, has recently finished his licentiate thesis on the automation of casework systems in Swedish municipalities. Focussing on the public sector and the challenges it faces was no problem for him.

“I’m really interested in understanding how digital solutions affect the relationship between citizens and the public sector, and also what happens in organisations when they introduce various kinds of technology”, says Daniel Toll.

Hope for more effective casework

It is hoped that automation will bring positive effects, such as faster processes and better service for citizens. But, at the same time, many aspects of it are unclear.

  • What does “automation” actually mean?
  • How are public organisations and citizens affected when ever more processes are automated?
  • Who is responsible when a robot takes an incorrect decision?
  • What will happen to the caseworker profession?
  • How do we ensure that welfare services are not vulnerable when technology stops working?

Daniel Toll has looked at the process of introducing robot caseworkers for administrative work – in this case, a piece of software that is called “robotic process automation” (RPA), which is not actually a physical robot. RPA is a computer program, or digital robot, where the user indicates a starting point and defines which tasks the robot must complete. Daniel Toll says that RPA does not constitute artificial intelligence (AI).

“There are various opinions about whether RPA is or is not artificial intelligence. Suddenly, we’re looking at a philosophical question, when asking what AI is”, he says with a laugh, looking pensive.

Differing views of automation

Daniel Toll PhD student at the Department of Management and Engineering

Companies that sell this software portray RPA as something easy, fast and flexible, and strategists regard it is a powerful tool. Generally speaking, Sweden’s municipalities and regions see great potential for smarter welfare. But at some municipalities, caseworkers and co-workers at the IT departments are not as positive. They see challenges and problems behind the technology. At the heart of Daniel Toll’s licentiate thesis is exactly this question: how is the technology understood?

“In my licentiate thesis, I want to show these differences – that we have different ways of looking at this technology. We have different understandings of what the technology is to lead to in the future. These ways of looking at technology are technical on the one hand, and social on the other”, says Daniel Toll.

There are different interest groups who have different views about what automation constitutes. Daniel Toll’s study has identified three groups with varying socio-technological views of automation:

  • Automation is a new era of digitalisation.
  • Automation is just another kind of computer program.
  • Automation is a powerful tool. 

Each view takes into account different factors, such as the capacity and limitations of using automation. But also the question of whether the technology can help people, and what it will lead to.

“There’s a spectrum of optimism and pessimism here. But it’s more complex than just being for or against the automation of administrative processes. These different groups really must work together and talk to each other”, says Daniel Toll.

Daniel Toll believes that automation of casework is complex and takes a long time. It requires infrastructure, and new skills. The strategists and politicians concerned need to be better at remembering and understanding the nature of processes at municipalities. A large part of the challenge is finding the administrative processes that are suitable for automation.

Translation by Benjamin Davies.

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