Utah CTO Dave Fletcher pushes his agency to continue to innovate with digital assistants.

Apr 06 2020

Digital Assistants Help States as Residents' Demands for Services Soars

Online software like chatbots provide consistency of service to citizens 24/7.

Back in 2003, utah.gov was the first state website to include a 24/7 live chat feature. Now, the state offers award-winning online services, voice-activated capabilities for Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, and even a bill-tracking app for Apple Watch.

On Mississippi’s state website, an AI-based chatbot answers more than 2,500 questions a month from the public with no human intervention.

City and state governments are pushing boundaries when it comes to digital assistants, and more agencies are turning to them to provide instant responses round the clock to constituents while also automating repetitive, easily performed tasks, such as answering the same questions again and again. While agencies find significant cost savings from deploying digital assistants, officials emphasize the consistency of service as valuable to citizens.

“When you’re talking about citizen and government interaction, governments want people to spend a minimal amount of time getting the information they need, when they need it,” says Marc Mancher, a principal at Deloitte and leader of the company’s federal analytics service business. “There’s a business case, of course — entities can save money — but strategically, most are in it to improve their mission to citizens.”

That mission, to make better connections between citizens and government, is central to the handful of governments making the greatest strides in digital communications.

Utah Was an Early Adopter of Voice Assistants 

In addition to Utah’s chat feature, another early foray for the state into online services was a driver’s license quiz accessible in every home online through a voice assistant.

“We had a lot of success with that,” says Utah CTO Dave Fletcher. “People liked it, especially kids. Interacting with the device was a good way to practice for the exam.”

Today, Utah’s many online services are saving the state millions of dollars, according to a study by the University of Utah’s Center for Public Policy and Administration. In a five-year period, researchers estimate, Utah saved nearly $46 million in administrative costs.

However, cost savings are not the state’s No. 1 goal.

“We want to provide the best and most seamless experience to people, no matter what platform they’re using,” Fletcher says.

READ MORE: AI usage is expected to continue to grow in state government. 

Mississippi Launches MISSI Chatbot to Answer Queries 

Launched in 2017, MISSI is an AI-based chatbot for Mississippi residents. Built with the Microsoft Bot Framework, MISSI works 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer more than 50,000 inquiries a year, according to the Mississippi Department of Information Technology.

“We noticed early in the 2000s that people were asking many of the same questions. Now, a decade later, we have the innovative technologies to answer those questions,” says Renée Murray, e-government program lead for Mississippi.

In addition to MISSI, residents can choose from a range of applications and services on the state’s website, receive customized texts from the state, and connect through a number of devices, including Apple’s Siri and Google Home

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how AI will free security pros from menial tasks.

Indiana Aims for Centralized Efficiency with Chatbots 

Graig Lubsen, director of communication and marketing for the Indiana Office of Technology, is the creative lead for the in.gov program. 

“Our system answers chatbot questions with replies from a list of FAQs,” Lubsen says. “Responses from our FAQs were viewed about 2.1 million times in 2019, which was 10 percent more than in 2018. It’s gone up every year.”

$3.5 billion

The amount that consumers and businesses are projected to spend on voice-activated devices in 2021

Source: gartner.com, “Gartner Predicts 25 Percent of Digital Workers Will Use Virtual Employee Assistants Daily by 2021,” Jan. 9, 2019

To keep information consistent, Indiana’s FAQs are available to all platforms via Zendesk. Microsoft Azure translates voice requests and determines whether a user needs a response from several resources ­­— for example, a travel advisory followed by an answer from the state’s FAQs. 

All of this happens in microseconds before a response is sent to the user.

A centralized content management system streamlines administration, making it easy to check for issues, provide analytics and make global changes that affect more than 70,000 pages of website content.

VIDEO: State CIOs discuss how AI will impact Big Data analysis. 

Iowa Enrolls Agencies in Google My Business 

In Iowa, Matthew Behrens, CTO and deputy CIO for the state, wants to help Iowans to find information regardless of where their searches begin. In 2020, half of all searches will be by voice, according to Comscore, so Behrens and his team had all of the state’s agencies enroll in Google My Business. “Many times, people just want to know the phone number or hours of an agency, so they do a Google search,” Behrens says. 

“If our agencies are enrolled in Google My Business, the correct information shows up right away. They may never get to the Iowa website, but they get the information they need,” he adds.

Behrens and the tech team also have worked on developing voice skills for commercial assistants like those made by Google.

“As home devices gain critical mass, it will have an impact, and we’re preparing ourselves for when that S-curve starts to shoot up,” Behrens says.

According to Deloitte’s Mancher, though there’s a wide range of approaches to developing digital assistants, all of these government entities are on the right track.

“Government tech and business line leaders need to ask themselves, ‘Am I better able to accomplish my mission using this technology? Is my service level faster? Can I help more citizens?’ Governments are service-driven, not profit-driven. If you can answer yes to these questions, it’s a huge win.”

Photography by Louis Arevalo