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Gen AI hallucinations, two years for one data-sharing agreement, and weaning prisons off paper - UK Government shares digital highs and lows

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 26, 2024
Government Digital Service CEO and Ministry of Justice CDIO spilled the tea at Tech Show London.

Gina Gill and Tom Read
Gina Gill and Tom Read

At Tech Show London earlier this month, two digital experts from the UK Government gave an update on successes seen from introducing technology in prisons; progress it’s making with AI, as well as some ongoing challenges around hallucinations; and where outdated attitudes to data-sharing and digitized services are holding back the UK.

The good

COVID has been an enabler in terms of allowing technology into prisons, according to Gina Gill, Chief Digital and Information Officer at the Ministry of Justice. Virtual visits, prompted by the need to let prisoners have visitors during the pandemic, meant that for the first time a couple of years ago, they got to see their families on Christmas Day. Send legal mail to prisons is a digital service that ensures that mail coming into prisons is legit and isn't laced with the Spice drug. 

Gill’s favorite is the technology that helps inmates manage their own lives in prison. She explained:

The way that prisons run generally is very antiquated. Everything is run off a paper regime. Printers are probably the most critical technology that we've got in prisons in some way, because if they break, then everything else stops working.

If a prisoner wants to order an item from the canteen, get the answer to a question, or see a medical professional, they need to fill out a form. Gill said:

There's this whole process of things going back and forth on paper forms between cells and prison officers. What we started to do is roll out technology and mobile devices to prisoners - obviously very secured and with limited functionality - but what it allows prisoners to do is take responsibility for their own administration. Now if I am a prisoner, I know that I've got work the next day, that I've been paid for work, what I've ordered to eat, if I've got a visit coming up.

There were other unforeseen benefits of the project. When the MoJ was rolling out the technology to a particular prison, a prisoner politely declined. It transpired he couldn’t read or write. Gill explained:

The reality is, about half of people in prisons can't read or write. But the whole regime is based on an ability to fill in forms, which means that you have a prison population that is completely disconnected from the regime and can't function in prison effectively.

By providing technology that negates the need for form-filling, the MoJ, that prisoner and others like him have access to services they couldn't access before. Overall, there's less paper in prisons, prison officers are spending less time collecting and distributing forms, people are more engaged with the regime and understand what's happening. It's even reduced food wastage. Gill added:

We weren't expecting that one, but because people can see what they're ordering, there's a picture of food, they don't have to try and understand what it is and then find that they can't eat it.

Another unintended outcome of introducing technology into prisons is a change to prisoner behaviour. Tom Read, CEO, Government Digital Services (GDS) recalled seeing a demo during lockdown of the video visits solution between a prisoner and his family. 

On screen, he saw the inside of his house and his dog for the first time in eight years. It's like a magic portal into the world that he'd left behind. The governor of the prison said his behavior changed overnight after that because he'd suddenly seen this other world. That was not the point, the point was trying to fix the problem of no physical visits.

There has been some good progress in other places regarding digitalizing government services – Gill cited passport renewal, e-gates and online tax as examples. She added:

Where we need to do better is thinking about how you join up that user experience for people, and how you start to reimagine some of the services that we still do in a very archaic way. How do we build amazing services that are as good as Starling’s app, but without leaving people behind who really struggle to do anything in society?

Gill, who worked in financial services for a number of years before coming to the civil service, said the way the government approaches digitalizing some services is the same as the traditional banks. 

I worked for Lloyd's, I worked for Barclays, they transformed over time. They went from branch banking to phone banking to online banking. But if you looked at the service in the branch and the service online, they were largely the same thing, just through a different channel.

What hadn’t changed was the definition of a bank, as defined by regulation, compliance teams, and customer service staff. Disruptors like Starling and Monzo came along and turned the model on its head, starting from what a customer needed from a bank, rather than trying to reinvent the same thing over and over in different channels. Gill added:

That is the mindset shift that needs to happen for our services to go from good to great.

The bad

Gill cited applying for legal aid as a good example of a service that needs improvement:

If I need financial support in the process of justice, I can take that from a paper-based process to an online process. It's still a really complicated online process. Why should I even have to apply? Why can't I just tell you whether you are eligible for legal aid.

While that first might be reliant on different policy decisions, from a technology perspective, this is something the government should be able to offer, Gill maintained:

That's not complicated technology, that's not hard, it's not bleeding edge. It's something that should be available to us. The thing that stops us is the thing that stops many organizations, it's a cultural way of doing things and changing that is really difficult.

This is further complicated by the fact that the UK government isn't one single body but many different legal entities. Gill explained:

Therefore you have to have data-sharing agreements between different government departments to be able to share data, which makes it more difficult. It took us two years to negotiate an agreement with another government department to get some data to check for eligibility for legal aid. Two years of negotiation within government data sharing.

The ugl-AI

While work is ongoing to overcome challenges around data-sharing and embedded culture, like pretty much every other organization since the arrival of ChatGPT, GDS is exploring the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in improving public services.

There are three areas of particular interest to Read. The first is machine-learning and pattern analysis to improve how the government runs public services, allocates resources, and is able to predict demand. 

Second is Copilot, which he says is a really useful tool for civil servants who need to have so much information to hand. 

And finally, GDS is currently investigating the potential for a generative chat interface as an additional user interface for citizens. Read said:

There are 700,000 pages on gov.UK. Government is really complicated. We write them really well and every page is accessible and loads really fast on a mobile phone, but it's a lot of information.

GDS is building a generative AI model that will let people ask questions of government in their own language and get simple answers back. While it has made significant progress with the project, the development process is proving extremely complicated. And it’s not ready for release yet because it's still hallucinating about 5% to 7% of the time. Read explained:

Slightly annoyingly, we decided that to make it as useful as possible, we told it that if you're going to give a recommendation, you've got to put the citations in - what page on gov.UK you’re giving the information from. That's the bit it's hallucinating. It’s giving a compelling answer and then making up the URLs. It’s really frustrating.

Another hiccup: the UK government chat tool briefly spoke French. Read added:

I still don’t know why. But I think we'll get there. The tech is moving fast, but the product has to be utterly ready before we put it in front of users.

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