Why didn't the number of government employees go down by a significant margin after computers and the Internet were introduced?

  • Looking at the statistics for the number of public servants in the UK on can see that their numbers are relatively stable over the past 20 years. However it seems strange to me since huge improvements in technology have occurred since that time, which should have made possible to fire a huge number of government employees who were previous dealing with the inefficiencies of paper-based systems. Even services like the police could be reduced in numbers since you can now monitor an entire city from a single office, rather than relying on ever-present foot patrols.

    So why aren't we seeing large scale reductions in government employment over the past 20 years? Why do we still need so many people managing things instead of computers?

    Why do you assume that any government agency has an incentive to be efficient?

    @user4012: To be fair, there are some things that have become more efficient since the widespread use of computers. In the old days, registering a car used to mean a 20+ mile drive, and at least half a day spent in line at the DMV. Now I can do it in 5 minutes - while in Europe.

    Why would you fire a whole lot of people instead of just using those people to do *more* useful things?

    "The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy." - Oscar Wilde

    A common misconception is that computers make work easier. In reality the amount of work increases while computers make things possible that would otherwise be absolutely impossible.

    @sbecker Exactly. People don't use computers to do the same with fewer people; they use computers to do more. And add to that the fact that a lot of government employees work in "customer" service positions for which there is increasing demand because the number of "customers" keeps growing.

    @MilesRout: if you're the current UK government, you'd do that if you could because you want to cut the deficit. It is not their policy goal to maximise the amount of useful things the government does, it's their policy goal to "balance the books" (i.e. to spend no more than they receive in tax). Their actual success at moving towards this goal has been mixed, of course, because efficiency savings are never as easy as you think they'll be, and cutting services isn't as popular as they hoped it would be.

    @SteveJessop But then they probably don't want to be the one putting thousands on the dole, either for political reasons or the for the cost.

    @TripeHound: well, it's not as if computers arrive in every government department on the same day and make everyone redundant all at once, so "firing a lot of people" isn't the literal reality. The question covers 20 years, and generally governments or departments who are making cuts can reduce numbers over time by not replacing those who leave or retire, rather than by dramatically sacking everyone. They might still sack some.

    This is an example of the Luddite fallacy. History has shown that instead of technology reducing jobs, it merely changes the job composition in an economy. Lawyers thought that computers would make the job of legal interns, largely paperwork/administration-based, obsolete; instead, they found that work that would have previously been impossible to attempt, e.g. a much larger number of cases, was now actually possible. They found the interns different jobs to do.

  • Brythan

    Brythan Correct answer

    4 years ago

    There are two separate effects caused by making it easier to process paperwork. The one that you identified is that it takes less work to process the paperwork that had been required previously. The other effect is that it makes it easier to add more paperwork. If they add enough additional paperwork requirements, that offsets the reduction in the effort to process the old requirements.

    Another problem is that an increased ability to produce paperwork works for both sides. It's easier for the criminal to produce fake paperwork. So the government needs more paperwork to check that the paperwork is valid.

    Before computers, you would have to store all that paper as paper. Huge, giant file cabinets. With computers, you can store much more paperwork. Scan it in and one hard drive can hold a file cabinet's worth of paperwork. With eFile, you may not even have to scan the paperwork.

    TL;DR: there's more paperwork now than there was before computers.

    Even services like the police could be reduced in numbers since you can now monitor an entire city from a single office, rather than relying on ever-present foot patrols.

    This is completely backwards. The point of foot patrols is not to "monitor" the city. We haven't needed that since phones became omnipresent. The point of foot patrols is to show presence. So criminals go, "Oh, I just saw a police officer. Maybe now isn't the best time to steal that lady's purse." Or deal drugs. Or whatever. We still don't have a technology that really replaces that (although there is some work on security robots).

    That's another problem with viewing technology as simplifying things. A side effect of foot patrols was that people could report crimes directly to the foot patrols. But the real purpose was to signal to people that the police cared. If you entirely take away the monitoring role from the police, there is still a need to signal caring.

    In addition, any response to monitoring requires police. The foot patrols mean that there are officers right there. What do officers do when there aren't calls? Hide in some remote location? Or openly patrol the city, on foot?

    Most aspects of life that can be automated are just part of the process. Even if you take away the entirety of the portion that can be automated, we still have the other portions. And many times, the other portions are nearly as much work as before the automation.

    Take water samples for an example. We can automate pouring the water into a testing machine. We can automate printing out and distributing the reports. But what we can't automate is having a trusted person drive out to the location that needs tested, collect the water, and send it to the testing location. Even if we could automate that, we can't automate checking that the automating equipment hasn't been compromised. Pull the equipment out of the stream and put it in a bucket instead. Then you can produce as much pollution as you want. The automation happily generates reams of fake paperwork.

    To fix that, we send a person out to the location who checks that the sensor is in the stream and not a bucket. That person tests the sensor and puts it back. Then takes a water sample, labels it, and sends it to the testing location. Which of course is exactly the job that we were trying to automate away. Worse, a significant portion of that job is travel. And travel isn't helped much by skipping every other location.

    Net effect of technology:

    • Expensive new equipment.
    • Increased reach (more samples taken).
    • Modest decrease in people doing the original job, as auditing the remote results takes a substantial portion of the work.
    • New work is required to maintain the automation.

    We had a similar issue with gasoline. Gasoline efficiency (measured in gallons per mile) doubled. But gasoline usage stayed the same. People used the same amount of gasoline but increased their commute distance instead.

    Increased efficiency doesn't necessarily lead to decreased usage. It only does so if we are satisfied with the same output.

    I think the answer could emphasize *output* earlier; it’s kind of implicit throughout, but you don’t actually draw explicit attention to it until literally the last word. There’s not just more paperwork “because,” there’s more paperwork because we always *wanted* more (more thorough checking, more details and data available, and so on), it’s just that before we were limited in our ability to collect, store, and handle so much. More efficiency can mean the same number of people get more done, rather than getting the same amount done with fewer people.

    The problem with computers making police work more efficient is that lots more things effectively become illegal. That is, if dealing with serious crime X becomes more efficient, the police don't just take the rest of the day off. They now have time to harass you about minor offenses Y and Z, which they seldom had time to bother with before.

    @jamesqf Why is this a problem?

    @Anon234_4521: 1) Because the taxpayers don't see the benefit of increased efficiency. 2) Because more people are victimized by the legal system.

    I think *harass* and *victimize* are part of a stigma against police the media and public have helped push around recently. I think the efficiency of the police force increases when they can handle more at once, and that the only people "victimized" would be those committing minor crimes anyway. They have to be enforced to have meaning.

    "TL;DR: there's more paperwork now than there was before computers." It's bloody genius if you phrase it like that. Of-course, much of that paperwork is no longer on actual paper, but the workload definitely increased by having more forms to fill out. Governments like forms.

    @jamesqf That's a warped argument against legal or police practices; both of which are mutable and independent topics, not a valid argument against increasing the efficiency of the civil service via computerisation.

    "It only does so if we are satisfied with the same output." I am.

    @jamesqf It seems like police being better able to enforce law should lead to calls for removing bad laws, not making police less able to enforce them.

    We always spend the same amount on gas - the difference is how much we drive.

    @inappropriateCode: I agree that it's a separate topic. However, I was asked for a reason, and I provided it. Whether it's warped or not is a matter of perspective: from my POV trying to control people's not-harmful-to-others actions is what's warped.

    @jamesqf The reason others are confused and asking for clarification is because you went off on a tangent which by your own admission is a separate topic. Yes, I'm sure we agree it's a waste of time for the police to bother people for trivial offences, but it's not relevant to the question or answer at hand. That's an issue related to law and policing policy; not the efficiency of the police via computerisation.

    "What do officers do when there aren't calls? Hide in some remote location? Or openly patrol the city, on foot?" -- the answer to that question in the UK (and I suspect in other countries too) was to be *in cars*, not to patrol on foot. Except in areas with frequent crime (e.g. city centre, Saturday night), an officer on foot is almost always not near the place you actually need a response. This trend went on for some years until "bobbies on the beat" became a headline issue, and some cops in cars were redeployed to foot, where they achieve different goals than responding rapidly to 999 calls.

    ... in practice, though, I still rarely see a police constable on foot except in predictable danger zones that need some level of crowd control (large events, and/or heavy drinking, basically). PCSOs on foot, sure.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM