Talking computers no longer merely belong to a dystopian future, but rather are already transforming our daily lives—and now the practices of government. Governments have begun adopting chatbots—computer programs that can hold conversations via audio or text—to improve and speed up service for residents.
In many cases, interaction with chatbots can replace traditional resident-city interactions that may be time consuming and tedious, like a trip to the department of motor vehicles (DMV). For one, chatbots can answer nearly any simple resident question with complete accuracy, pulling instantaneously from a database of knowledge. Moreover, chatbots can relay this information quickly, without the need for residents to wait in a long line or stay on hold. And, using chatbots where feasible also frees city employees up to contend with more complex problems.
Below are five areas where governments have implemented or should begin to implement chatbots in order to improve the efficiency of service delivery.
In the U.K., Londoner and Stanford undergrad Joshua Browder created a chatbot to help recently-evicted residents apply for government housing. The premise was that people who have recently been kicked out of their homes may not be in a good position to write letters and gather information for a housing application. Browder’s service, available on the DoNotPay.co.uk site, asks users a number of questions via instant message, and then creates a legally-sound application designed to maximize applicants’ chances of finding housing.
American cities could integrate such a system into the websites of their housing authorities, allowing users to create applications for subsidized housing via conversations with chatbots. Currently, the application process for subsidized housing is often prohibitively convoluted. For example, in Boston, the process requires residents to determine their eligibility, watch a series of training videos, and fill out a seventeen-page preliminary application. Making this process easier and quicker using chatbots could help many residents in need of subsidized housing submit accurate applications.
The U.K has also seen innovative uses of chatbots in the realm of public health. Startup Babylon Health started a six month trial in January to use chatbots to replace the National Health Service’s (NHS) 111 service, through which residents call for advice on non-emergency medical matters. Thanks to Babylon’s mobile app, rather than speaking with operators who are not necessarily medically qualified, residents can message with chatbots to check their symptoms instantly and get advice on the appropriate course of action. The goal is for the chatbots to take care of simpler medical requests, allowing residents to avoid unnecessary doctors’ appointments and freeing up those physicians on call to tend to residents in greatest need.
While American cities do not have a comparable 111 system, building chatbots into public health efforts could greatly streamline services. Often, health departments have few physicians on call, creating a backup of residents with medical questions and leading to long waits. By integrating chatbots into health department websites and phone services, cities can create a medically-savvy service that can answer basic resident questions and allay concerns until a medical professional is available. For example, if a resident fears he has been exposed to an infectious disease, he could message a chatbot on the city’s public health website explaining the situation and symptoms and receiving guidance.
Department of Motor Vehicles
Perhaps the most notoriously slow and tedious of all government offices is the DMV. The average wait time at the DMV is 44 minutes, though in some cities typical waits can be as many as four hours long. Often, residents must wait to complete simple tasks like renewing their license plates.
Chatbots provide a much more efficient means of doing business with a city’s department of motor vehicles. By creating a bot that can complete tasks like renewing license plates or issuing parking permits, cities could allow residents to complete those tasks more quickly while simultaneously reducing congestion and improving speed of service in DMV offices.
Most 311 calls are simple information requests—questions about the hours of the public pool, what roads will be closed during an event, or some other piece of information. These are all questions that could easily be answered by a chatbot, either over the phone or via instant messaging. By having chatbots handle simpler requests, cities can free up call center workers to handle more complex citizen inquiries, providing better and faster service.
Recently, governments have made a number of innovative efforts to engage citizens in decision making in order to make policy more democratic and better tailored to residents’ needs. The New York City Police Department, for example, has adopted crowdsourcing platforms that allow residents to submit ideas and has increased its presence on social media to engage with residents.
Chatbots provide another opportunity to grow citizen participation in government. By creating chatbot surveys that ask residents questions about policy issues, cities can gather more direct citizen feedback. For example, rather than encouraging residents to merely call their mayor’s office with concerns, cities could integrate chatbots into the city hall website or Facebook page to allow residents to voice opinions and then automatically ask follow-up questions to gather deeper, more useful input.
By employing chatbots, cities can improve the speed and effectiveness of their interactions with residents. In addition to allowing residents to avoid long lines, chatbots possess unique technological capacities, like the ability to communicate with foreign language speakers. By leveraging such capabilities as well as freeing up city employees to manage complex resident requests, chatbots have the potential to provide each citizen with more personalized service.