Connecting governments and citizens with chatbots

Chatbots help foster better communications between governments and citizens
30 July 2018

Chatbots help improve communication between governments and citizens. Source: Shutterstock

Chatbots have opened up a new way for businesses to interact with customers directly, without employing an army of telecalling executives.

Today, chatbots are being used by insurers, bankers, and even manufacturers, to drive a more personalized user experience.

More than just a conversational tool, chatbots help handle the mundane, repetitive business processes; which frees up staffs to serve customers with more complex requests.

In the US, Citibot (an independent company) is allowing governments to better connect with their citizens using chatbots.

The company offers text-based chatbot (also called Citibots) to put citizens in touch with their local government. Users can ask questions and report issues to their city or county council, and get responses in real-time.

“About 60 percent of communication that local governments receive are citizens asking questions,” said Citibot Co-founder Bratton Riley in an interview with the local media.

Riley explained that Citibot is able to search for keywords on the council’s website, to provide answers in real time. This significantly reduces the time and manpower spent on answering routine questions.

If the bot can’t find relevant answers, citizens can request to talk to a human.

Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Citibot understands requests received and automatically creates work orders. These orders get incorporated into the workflow management system.

Citizens are notified when the work order is completed, along with a thank you note for flagging the issues.

Chatbots are not new. The concept was first popularized by the advent of Apple’s Siri voice assistant.

Shortly after, AI-based chatbots were rolled out commercially on various chat platforms such as WeChat and Facebook’s Messenger.

In the early days, chatbots were mainly programmed intelligence. However, with the advancements in AI and natural language processing (NLP), chatbots are becoming more attractive as a form of automating communication-based workloads.

With chatbots like Citibot, users are able to quickly access public data, or submit complaints and requests even after office hours.

This speeds up the processes and reduces the waiting times for citizens. For some chatbots that support multiple languages, it allows users to get assistance in their native language as well.

For governments, chatbots are a convenient way to keep connected with citizens. The chatbot can help address citizen issues without councils needing to dedicate resources for responding to each individual request.

This translates to 24/7 access to local council public services, without piling on additional stress for staffs working unsocial hours.

On top of that, in the case of Citibot, local councils can run data analytics to track commonly asked questions and issues, to understand their citizens and provide better public services.

Citibot is quite new, having launched only about a year ago in North Charleston. However, this is not America’s first chatbot used by government entities.

In Los Angeles, the CHIP (City Hall Internet Personality) chatbot made for the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network (LABAVN) helps answer questions on how to do business with the city.

The result was a 50 percent decrease in emails that needed to be dealt with by human staff.

Kansas City also runs a Facebook chatbot, developed to make open data accessible for non-technical users. The chatbot helps users locate the most relevant data on what they care about in the city’s government.

The General Services Administration also starting using a bot named “Mrs. Landingham”. Deployed on the work messaging app Slack, it is designed to help new employees navigate information on forms, discussions, and government jargons.

While chatbots are useful for responding to citizen queries quickly; more importantly, it frees up much-needed manpower from routine queries.

According to government data, the number of employees in local government hasn’t changed much since 2006, hovering around 14 – 14.5 million staff per year.

In the same timeframe, the US population has increased by around 27 million; for comparison, the population in Canada and the UK only increased by around 5 million each.

If the US population continues to grow, while the staff numbers are not increased to help with the added demands, it will put immense pressure on the current system.

Technology such as chatbots can help ease the strain on staff, allowing them to help citizens with more complex issues that would require human intervention.

Not only can chatbots save local councils time and money, they can also encourage better interaction between citizens and governments.