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Government embraces next-gen citizen services with chatbots

“Alexa, renew my driver’s license.”

The thought of artificial intelligence-based personal assistants responding to citizen requests has generated excitement from some government IT professionals who see  chatbots as a technology that can help them become more efficient while improving citizen services.

Chatbots use AI and machine learning to mimic human conversation to respond to a request or help users complete a task. With a few exceptions, their use is mostly limited to textual communication, but as AI advances, chatbots will be able to interact with humans via sophisticated voice-based interfaces.

While chatbots are still in their infancy, government agencies have recognized their potential and are already putting them to use in three ways:

Fielding citizen questions: At their most basic level, chatbots can answer common questions that might normally be handled by a government employee,  such as which roads will be closed during an event, how to pay a parking ticket, checking on the status of a tax refund.  The Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services is currently using a chatbot named “Missi” to support more than 100 inquiries, including those related to hunting licenses, taxes and drivers licenses. Unlike a visit to a motor vehicles department , where the wait time average is 44 minutes (and up to four hours in some cities), users can get answers from chatbots promptly, freeing up government employees to focus on more complex or nuanced issues.

Facilitating complex tasks: In the U.K., undergraduate student and LawyerBot creator Joshua Browder developed a chatbot to help residents recently evicted from their homes apply for government housing. Being evicted can be a traumatic and disorienting experience, so the chatbot makes the application process less stressful, walking residents through a series of questions, compiling the answers and submitting a formal application on behalf of the resident. Websites can be difficult to navigate and consumers and constituents want more from government than static content -- they want interaction, engagement and often guidance or assistance to complete tasks. Chatbots can deliver all the above.

Increasing citizen engagement: Chatbots are a great listening tool for government agencies. In Georgia, Gwinnett County used an interactive text messaging platform to engage citizens about the future of local transportation, receiving more than 1,400 survey responses and 2,700 text survey responses in a week. Having the option to communicate via text prompted more citizens to respond to the survey and gave the county more data on which it could base future decisions.

How secure are chatbots?

For the most part, chatbots are being used today to send automated messages through text messaging. Because users are not required to share personally identifiable information in these text communications, privacy concerns are somewhat mitigated. However, as chatbots mature and governments lean more heavily on the technology, it’s likely that localities will need to increase privacy and security measures. For improved security, chatbot communication should be encrypted and deployed on encrypted channels only, which for most government agencies is not a new requirement.

As chatbot technology continues to evolve and becomes more sophisticated at imitating human behavior, the risk of hacking and phishing scams grows. But regulators are beginning to anticipate these issues and are taking the necessary steps to ensure data shared in the future will be safeguarded. Cybersecurity and converged infrastructure are a natural intersection in government IT environments and will continue to evolve to meet the demands of new technology. 

Government agencies are paying attention to chatbots. The potential this relatively new technology offers for creating innovative services is truly in its infancy. And the inherent improvements in efficiency, technology integration and cost savings are a wonderful bonus.

The promise of these emerging technologies is exciting, giving governments the ability to reach the modern citizen and connect on all matters of public and personal importance. Citizens want more from their government agencies as well and seek increased accessibility to information in real time, as well as transparency and accountability. Chatbots and other technology using AI can give citizens just that -- an effective means of communication and increased engagement with governmental agencies in an ever-connected world.

About the Author

Franco Amalfi is director of innovation for Oracle Public Sector North America.


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