Automation could replace 250,000 jobs in government over the next 10 to 15 years -- with potentially one million more under threat.
The UK's public sector workforce stood at around 5.3 million in the middle of last year, and has been falling since 2009, when it stood at 6.4 million. But that could be slashed significantly if the public sector adopts a policy of automating predictable jobs, according to a report from thinktank Reform.
Its report Work in Progess noted that some parts of the public sector feature significant proportions of junior staff who could be replaced by automation.
"In primary care, there are 10 receptionists for every 14 clinicians, and almost one per GP. In secondary care, 18 per cent of employees fill administrative roles. Thirty-seven per cent of civil servants fill defined administrative roles," it said.
The report stated that many routine administrative roles have as much as a 96 per cent chance of being automated by current technology, according to academics.
"Applying their calculations to current public-sector numbers suggests that over the next 10 to 15 years, central government departments could further reduce headcount by 131,962, saving £2.6bn from the 2016-17 wage bill."
In the NHS, 91,208 administrator roles could be automated, plus another 24,000 roles in primary care, taking the total to 248,860, potentially saving £4bn.
The actual numbers involved could be even bigger: the report pointed to administrative and operational functions that are repetitive and predictable activities -- like desk-based administrative roles, or physical roles such as cleaners -- as also being ripe for automation. Consultants Deloitte calculate there are 1.3 million of these roles across the public sector.
The report also suggested that public sector bodies could dip into the so-called gig-economy of workers to fill roles in nursing or teaching.
"While social care is an obvious area for developing contingent-labour platforms, it should be explored across the public sector. Both schools and hospitals are struggling to keep down their spending on agency fees, and have scope to make a system that is more beneficial to employers and employees," it said.