Generative AI (genAI) is revolutionizing the private sector, and its leaders are determined to implement this emerging technology at scale and without delay, driven as they are by competitive pressures and demand for growth. According to Forrester’s data, public sector leaders are also well aware of the potential disruption that genAI represents (even more so than their private sector counterparts: 38% versus 28%). Their plans to adopt genAI for internal and external use cases trail well behind the private sector (40–50% versus 90%).

Tension Exists Between Desire And Apprehension When It Comes To Adoption

In my latest report, The State of Generative AI In The Public Sector, 2024 (client-only access), I explore the tension between the desire and apprehension that surrounds the use of genAI in delivering mission-oriented outcomes.

One example I found was the tension between priorities and risks. Public sector leaders have set clear priorities when it comes to genAI, with respondents expressing a strong desire to utilize these technologies to innovate, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. Unlike many private organizations, however, the public sector faces the challenge of balancing these outcomes with broader social ethical, transparency, and accountability standards. Widely reported genAI blunders, along with pre-genAI examples — including the Air Canada and WestJet service bot fiascos and the Robodebt scandal in Australia — demonstrate that trust can be extensively and, possibly, irrevocably damaged by poorly applied AI. Given that transparency and accountability are key drivers of trust, public sector leaders are more likely to utilize genAI in an internal capacity (56%) than as part of customer-facing service delivery (46%). Put simply, the risk of eroding public trust is too high, especially given the influence it has on effective engagement and motivating customer action on what are often optional or nonenforceable programs.

Public sector leaders also highlighted other major challenges such as infrastructure integration, governance and risk, and a lack of technical skills. The lack of technical skills issue is far more pervasive for public sector leaders than for their private sector counterparts, especially as nonmonetary benefits have equalized between the sectors post-COVID, making public sector talent attraction even more difficult.

What Strategies Can Public Sector Leader Employ To Bridge The Gap?

These challenges have slowed adoption, but public sector leaders can make progress by adopting and deploying genAI internally for employee use, increasing familiarity with the technology, and identifying possible pitfalls and failures in a low-stakes environment. Once your institution has gained familiarity with the technology, you can begin to slowly and gradually release it to user-facing services, while constantly monitoring feedback and implementing safeguards.

To effectively harness genAI, it is crucial for public institutions to foster employee and customer trust. Need help? Forrester can assist you to analyze and monitor the components of trust as they impact your organization, as well as further develop your genAI strategy by offering research on categorization of genAI system risk, use cases for adoption, and quantifying employee AI skills and adoption readiness.

Forrester clients: Let’s chat more about this data via a Forrester guidance session.