Jan 31 2018

State and Local Governments Tap Chatbots to Slash Staff Workloads

Conversational tools are improving citizen engagement and freeing up personnel to focus on innovation.

As state and local agencies come up against tight budgets and shoestring staffing, any tool that can help alleviate the workload is welcome. Luckily, chatbots are getting lots of buzz for helping government workers cut back on menial tasks and focus instead on innovation and larger projects, while also increasing citizen engagement.

A chatbot is a service powered by artificial intelligence and preset rules that is designed to simulate conversations with users and provide preset answers. The technology can live on any major chat product, such as Microsoft Teams, Facebook Messenger or text message. These tools enhance the citizen experience by allowing residents to ask the bot simple questions and, in return, receive quick, clear answers, instead of spending time searching the agency's website or trying to find the correct department to call.

While chatbots are at work easing how citizens interact with government entities, they are also reducing the workload for already stretched department and agency teams, allowing them to focus on tasks other than answering phones and fielding simple citizen questions.

You have to look no further than Pizza Hut's pie-ordering bot to know that chatbots have already taken off in many ways in the commercial sector. While governments often lag behind in tech adoption, many local government agencies from Los Angeles to Atlanta, are making use of these tools to improve citizen engagement, simplify IT operations and a whole host of other use cases.

SIGN UP: Get more news from the StateTech newsletter in your inbox every two weeks!

Chatbots Free Up Government Personnel

The city of Los Angeles has become one of the first to implement a chatbot to take on simple and repetitive IT tasks, such as password resets. Chip the chatbot — whose name stands for City Hall Internet Personality — was unveiled by the Los Angeles IT department earlier this year as a tool that can help citizens troubleshoot their government IT needs. The tool lives on the Los Angeles Business Assistance Virtual Network, and while it is still being tested, it has already fielded thousands of queries from residents and has cut emails to BAVN in half.

"Chip is an anytime, anywhere resource to understand how to do business with the city," Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross told Government Technology. "When you have a city of over 4 million people, it's impossible to bring everyone into a football stadium all at once to talk to them. Technology is the platform in which we engage people."

Chatbots Increase Citizen Engagement

But the help desk is just the beginning of how these localities are hoping to use the technology. Atlanta, for example, is looking into ways to use the technology to improve citizen engagement, with the aim to tap chatbots to enable more streamlined 311 services. Using the Microsoft Bot Framework, the city is in the process of training its chatbot to provide answers to routine resident questions, speeding the time to get information to citizens as well as making help available after hours.

"If the user calls the 311 line, they will need to call during service hours, which may or may not be convenient for the user. If the user visits the website, they can only search for the answers to their questions in the way that the city has already documented them. A good chatbot does not have either of these limitations," Atlanta Deputy Chief Information Officer Kirk Talbott told StateScoop.

In Mississippi, the state's newly upgraded website features a chatbot named "Missi" that is trained to answer more than 100 resident questions, according to StateScoop. She can help residents do anything from figure out how to renew their driver's license to contact specific departments.

And in Arkansas, the state is working to introduce a chatbot as part of its personal government assistant project, the Gov2Go app, which can relieve phone line congestion and help streamline many of the questions the state's government agencies get each month.

"With chatbots, we hope to enable citizens to get answers to many types of questions using machine learning, and with human assistants providing support as needed," Yessica Jones, director of the Arkansas Department of Information Systems, told Government Technology.

This article is part of StateTech's CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.


anyaberkut/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT