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Digitally transforming government: MoJ and GDS on using mobile devices and GenAI to help people

During a fireside chat at the Tech Show London, GDS CEO Tom Read and the Ministry of Justice CDIO Gina Gill swapped stories on how their teams are using technology to improve the quality of life for citizens

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is experimenting with developing a generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool to make the information contained within the 700,000 pages of the Gov.uk website more accessible to end-users.

GDS CEO Tom Read discussed the project during a fireside chat with Ministry of Justice CDIO Gina Gill at the 2024 Tech Show London on Wednesday 6 March 2024, where the pair discussed at length the transformative impact technology can have on users of government services.

As an example, Gill shared details of how the prison system is being digitally transformed to make its day-to-day operations less reliant on paper-based forms and processes.

She said added that the process began in the wake of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. “Covid was a real enabler in terms of allowing technology into prisons,” she said, as social distancing requirements led to sites rolling out video-conferencing technology as a replacement for in-person visits so prisoners could still connect and see their loved ones.    

Even so, she said the way prisons are run is “very antiquated” and reliant on a lot of form filling, which means the printer is “probably the most important and critical technology” prisons have.

“Because if [the printer] breaks, then everything else stops working,” said Gill. “If you want to order something from the canteen, you fill in a form. If you want to see a medical professional, you fill in a form.”

Aside from using a lot of paper, the other issue with this way of working is that, according to Gill, around half of the people in prisons cannot read or write, meaning you have a subset of prisoners that are completely “disconnected from the regime”.

But things are changing, with the roll-out of mobile devices to prisoners that are, in Gill’s words, “very secure and with limited functionality” so they can manage their day-to-day lives in prison with greater ease and with less paper involved.

“It allows prisoners to take responsibility for their own administration. So, if I’m a prisoner, I know that I’ve got work the next day, I know that I’ve been paid for work, I know what I’ve ordered to eat and I know if I’ve got a visit coming up,” she said.

“And I’ve also got access to an internet of sorts, that provides educational content and entertainment [you can use] if you’re by yourself 22 hours a day.”

And the upside of this change is that prison staff now spend less time distributing forms across prisons, and prisoners feel more “engaged with the regime”, she added.

“And it’s even reduced food wastage, and we weren’t expecting that, but people can see what they’re ordering because there is a picture of the food and they don’t have to try to understand what it is and then find out they can’t eat it,” she added.

During the fireside chat session, Read talked about the work GDS is doing with generative AI (GenAI) to make the Gov.uk web pages more accessible and interactive for users so they can get the information they want about government services much faster.

“The thing we’re looking at in GDS at the moment is whether we could have a generative chat interface as an additional user interface for citizens,” he said.

“There are 700,000 pages on [the Gov.uk] site and we write them well. Every page is accessible and works really fast on a mobile phone. But it’s a lot of information. So, we’re building a generative AI that will allow people to ask questions to government in their own language and get simple answers back.”

While Read did not go into detail about how long the chatbot has been in development, he said the tool is definitely not ready for release yet, because it’s still hallucinating “five-to-seven percent” of the time by “making up URLs” when asked to share website links with users.

“It did speak French very briefly,” he added. “We’ll get there – the technology is moving fast, but the product has to be utterly ready before we put it in front of users.”

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