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From chatbots to automation: 3 examples of AI in local government

11.03.20 Written by Futr

Of the many exciting potential use cases of artificial intelligence (AI), local government applications are perhaps the most overlooked.

This post was updated in August 2021

Most people today have average tech skills and are, at the very least, capable of navigating across websites and apps. However, even your most ardent digital native can only find the information they need if they have the resources to do so.

And when it comes to local government, information gaps can have serious consequences for your constituents.

At best, it could lead to a minor inconvenience, as in the case of a York resident who recently lost out on fast broadband access due to a council error. Worst-case scenarios, however, can lead to losses of life. The recent flooding in Germany, for example, has been attributed to inadequate warnings from local authorities.

Service gaps also extend to the national government. For instance, data shows that in 2018, HMRC received 43 million calls — 4 million of which went unanswered.

Artificial intelligence (AI) may hold the solution to these challenges.

What is the use case for AI in local government?

Town Hall

Online services by local governments are huge banks of information. For instance, the average council in the UK will have information on their website about:

  • Adult social care
  • Children and family support
  • Council tax
  • Culture, leisure and parks
  • Education and schools
  • Parking

Digitising all of that data and making it available on a government website or app is a complex process. This is further compounded by the high stakes of government services — after all, local citizens need access to vital information around the clock.

This is where AI comes in.

As a technology that thrives in data-rich environments, AI systems offer the potential of helping guide and assist communities through important processes through automation, self-service and conversational chatbots.

Let’s take a look at the ways local governments are benefiting from AI:

1. Enhancing public services with data and analytics

Government staff can use AI to monitor and scale public services when necessary using real-time data. 

AI-based technologies can combine large datasets from internal departments with data from the wider public sector to discover trends and predict future outcomes. This enables councils and agencies to have a deeper understanding of their communities and how their services are working.

A recent Oxford University study showed where local governments apply predictive analytics:

Data analytics in action — Hackney Council

Hackney Council’s “Early Help Predictive System” is an example of this in practice.

Their AI programme identifies at-risk families so that they can intervene with support and benefits before a high-risk situation occurs or more costly services are needed.

The AI looks at publicly available data, such as debt, unemployment levels, housing inequality, school attendance and reports on anti-social behaviour and domestic violence to create a need profile for families in the area.

This helps council authorities provide early interventions in response to new alerts generated by the AI system.

As you can see, the underlying theme here is efficiency with data.

Hackney Council’s AI system isn’t doing something completely new or revolutionary. Rather, it speeds up a process local authorities and social workers have been doing manually for years — combing through reports to find out which segments of the local community need services the most.

AI technology makes this critical but time-sapping work more efficient and spots trends that would otherwise take hours, if not days, of data gathering and analysis.

2. Engaging the local community with AI-powered chatbots

The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced the use case for chatbots in local government. 

According to a recent report published in the Harvard Business Review, the average organisation saw its contact centre receiving a two-fold increase in the number of calls classified as “difficult”. These calls involved pandemic-related problems, such as requests to cancel travel arrangements and extend payment deadlines for bills.

These calls and messages require the full attention of live agents — a task easier said than done as they also have to field routine questions.

Enter the chatbot.

Related reading: 3 practical applications of chatbots for customer service

Chatbots in the public sector save support teams in councils from having to deal with time-sapping questions. Research shows that chatbots can handle anywhere between 40% to 80% of routine questions without negatively affecting the customer experience. 

These questions include:

  • What do I do with the blue bin?
  • What childcare options are available?
  • My street lights have gone out, eek! Help? 
  • I need to report anti-social behaviour. How do I contact the local authorities?
  • How do I report discrepancies in my latest council statement?
  • How do I book a bulky waste collection?

When implemented correctly, chatbot solutions can free up time for your live agents to focus on more complex and challenging conversations that need a human touch.

Chatbots in action — Newham Council

At Futr, we recently worked with Newham Council to help relieve pressure on their contact centre, which receives an astronomical 440 thousand calls per year. 

We worked with the council to develop a chatbot that assists with parking permits and penalty charge queries.

Many of Newham’s residents come from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the council’s data shows that over 200 languages are spoken in the area, presenting potential language barriers between government staff and the local community.

Newham Council wanted to ensure they serve all residents of the local community as effectively as possible. Futr was tasked to deploy a multilingual chatbot and live chat platform that escalates complex queries to their live agents and auto-translates questions and responses. 

Newham Council has seen excellent results so far. In just six months, the council was able to:

  • Answer 10,491 questions automatically
  • Save 84 hours in call time
  • Generate £40,000 in savings.

They are now looking to expand this service into other departments.

Bottom line? FAQ chatbots reduce the burden on contact centre staff tremendously.

Related reading: Brent Council: learning from rent analytics to aid early interventions

3. Automating routine tasks via self-service

Smartphone with chatbot

AI can walk residents through routine tasks, tools and applications on websites, apps and messaging platforms with little to no human intervention — a setup known as web-based self-service. Imagine a scenario where parents use a virtual assistant that helps them apply for school places. Or a senior citizen who struggles with online forms uses a voice-activated device to pay their council tax.

As the name suggests, self-service is a form of customer service that allows visitors to your site and network of digital channels to find information and solutions to their problems autonomously. By implementing an AI solution, you can signpost a user to the appropriate section on your site, where they can find a large number of resources to answer their questions.

This process happens seamlessly with the user not having to speak to another person or support representative. Self-service has become so important that 70% of customers want the feature in a company website.

Related reading: Why 2021 is the year of digital and self-serve for housing associations and their residents

Self-service will only become even more valuable in the coming years as the population continues to grow and local government offices are in higher demand. Self-service AI not only benefits local government staff in terms of efficiency but also improves the user experience for everyday people.

Self-service in action — Enfield Council

Enfield Council uses a chatbot called Amelia to handle routine queries. They are now exploring ways they can push Amelia’s capabilities even further

For instance, the AI could pre-screen planning permission requests or even offer self-certification for buildings that meet certain requirements.

AI in local government — a matter of when, not if

As you can see, there are tonnes of opportunities for digital transformation in local government. To summarise:

  • A growing number of councils are realising that the efficient use of data helps to improve council services. 
  • Chatbots provide timely support and reduce the burden on local government staff.
  • AI will be the backbone for enabling self-service not just in government but also in the private sector.

Be sure to follow the Futr blog for more insights on digital transformation in the public sector. 

Feeling inspired by this blog post? Get in touch with the Futr team to discuss innovative solutions to engage citizens and empower your live agents. Futr creates conversational AI for citizen support, live chat, application forms, surveys and more. 

  • Published 11.03.20
  • By Futr
  • In Features
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