APS heavyweights sit out Microsoft Copilot trial

Justin Hendry

Two of Canberra’s biggest federal government agencies are sitting out a six-month trial of Microsoft Copilot while another 7,400-plus public servants put the generative artificial intelligence assistant through its paces.

Services Australia and the Department of Defence, which together employ more than 130,000 Australian Public Sector (APS) staff, have both passed up the trial that will run until at least until the end of June.

Announced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in November, the Copilot trial – initially costed at $1.2 million – is intended to help public servants test “new ways to innovate and enhance productivity”.

The AI-powered assistant is capable of automating tasks and creating content within Microsoft’s suite of everyday productivity applications, including Word, Excel, Outlook, SharePoint, and Teams.

Image: Shutterstock.com/JLStock

Agencies were quick to take up the offer, with 51 signing up to the trial by mid-January, and at that time it was expected more would join. It was also unclear if any had completed the necessary onboarding and training to begin using Copilot.

InnovationAus.com now understands more than 7,600 public servants from 56 agencies – around half of all APS agencies – have signed up to the trial. Participants include the Australian Taxation Office and Department of Home Affairs, which both have more than 10,000 staff.

Other participating agencies include the Australian Federal Police, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Health and Aged Care, and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

Services Australia and Defence – two heavy uses of Microsoft technology, including Azure cloud services and productivity tools – are conspicuously absent from the list circulated following the February 1 sign up deadline.

Services Australia said it has passed up the trial to focus on training the 3,000 new staff it has added since November to process a backlog of more than a million claims across health and welfare payments.

“Our current priority is on managing service delivery pressures and training just over 5,100 new staff to support our customers as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson said, adding that the agency would “review lessons learned” from the trial.

It comes just weeks after Government Services minister Bill Shorten and newly appointed Services Australia chief executive David Hazlehurst led a delegation to Microsoft’s headquarters in Washington.

Defence, meanwhile, said it is still “developing a three-year technology roadmap, which will investigate the use of suitable capabilities, including Microsoft Copilot”, but remains committed to providing best-in-class platforms from overseas and local suppliers.

Defence has several current contracts with the government’s exclusive Microsoft licence reseller, Data#3, worth in excess of $230 million. The contracts cover Microsoft Azure services and enterprise subscriptions.

Finance minister Katy Gallagher last week said that AI, like the digital revolution, could “help make routine tasks easier and simpler for public servants so they can focus on what really matters – the policy and delivery work that supports Australians”.

“More than 7,400 public servants across more than 50 government agencies are participating in this trial, which will further cement Australia as a world-leader in digital government,” Senator Gallagher said.

“With participants ranging from Tourism Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology to the Department of Finance and IP Australia, it gives us an opportunity to better understand how generative AI can be used safety and responsibly in different types of work.”

With 7,400 now signed up to the trial, it remains unclear whether the cost of trial remains $1.2 million. A spokesperson for the Digital Transformation Agency on Friday said “the initial anticipated cost was an estimate” and that final costs are now commercial in confidence.

Public servants a required to complete a learning module and knowledge assessment built on advice developed by the DTA before taking part. The advice is based on interim guidance on generative AI released last year.

An update to the interim guidance was published in November. While it takes into account the increasing integration of generative AI into productivity tools, the revision was not specific to the Copilot trial.

Changes include closer alignment with the eight AI Ethics Principles developed by the data arm of national science agency CSIRO in 2019, and the removal of a principle asking agencies to conduct an initial high-risk assessment.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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