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The rise of bots: AI in the public sector

Tim Franklin

At a time when the majority of our communications are online and consumers are increasingly expecting information at their fingertips, investing in automation technologies to support always-on communication is crucial. From our tailored Spotify music recommendations to our interactions with Alexa, more parts of our daily routine are becoming automated, and we expect the same levels of digital engagement across all aspects of our lives.

As highlighted in our recent report, Better, faster and more innovative public services, 40% of millennials confirmed they use chatbots on a daily basis. With intelligent bots entering the market, AI presents an immense opportunity for organisations to change the way we work, appeal to a wider audience and boost productivity by up to 30%.

Drawing on over 25 years’ experience across public services, our NorthStar innovation lab has identified that one area where AI will have a significant impact is in the public sector, which is still in the early stages of its AI maturity curve. This is where conversational AI, self-service chatbots and messaging apps come in. From improving access to vital information at a time of crisis to sharing guidance from health services, schools or local authorities, digital citizen engagement via chatbots can help automate many of the repetitive requests and processes that are adding additional pressure to an already stretched public sector workforce.

Choosing your bot

Local and central government leaders share a common goal to improve the speed, quality and efficiency of public services. Yet with so many automation solutions on the market, it’s important that IT leaders outline the desired outcome, measure projected ROI and are realistic about their constraints, before launching into any implementation.

There’s no one size fits all approach. Organisations would be wise to spend time researching the different bot solutions available, as well as interviewing stakeholders across the business to determine their needs, budget and the overall level of IT skills and experience. When overhauling legacy IT systems, organisations should start small and scale-up. A basic chatbot solution is a good building block to start accelerating your AI journey and there are three levels of application to choose from:

  • FAQ bots are programmed to answer a set list of questions, which means they can reduce the amount of time employees spend responding to repetitive citizen queries
  • Task-focussed bots support citizens through a process, for example booking an appointment
  • Voice-enabled bots make self-service more accessible to an older demographic who may not know how to use or feel comfortable with online messaging services.

Understanding your end-users

Going from initial business case to full deployment isn’t a linear journey. As well as getting insight from internal stakeholders, it’s vital to look outside the organisation and engage with citizens (who will ultimately be the users of these services) to ensure their needs are considered from the outset.

Organisations should consider how these services will be used by different groups of people, for example, how accessible do they need to be? What is the demographic split of the future users and will voice be important to them? User research groups can help organisations create ‘personas’ for their future users, testing different technologies on these personas to ensure they’re meeting the needs of a diverse set of users.

Putting the user at the heart of the design phase of an AI implementation and taking a ‘citizen-as-consumer’ approach will ultimately ensure that the technology meets the needs and expectations of citizens.

Bots in action

Two examples of public sector organisations both in the UK and beyond that have successfully implemented AI, while keeping the citizen front of mind, and are reaping the benefits as a result are South Lakes Housing Association and Stonnington Library in Australia.

Cumbria-based South Lakes Housing Association (SLH) is looking to trial a Repair Booking bot. Via SLH’s bot, tenants will be able to book simpler repairs online, saving them time by not having to wait to speak to a customer agent on the phone, whilst freeing up employee time to focus on more strategic projects, enhancing productivity across the organisation. The housing provider, which typically handles over 15,000 repair calls per year, is aiming to use digitisation to reduce waiting times for more complex repair requests.

In a further example, Stonnington Library in Melbourne, Australia is trialing bot technology to map and collate thousands of books, documents and records. As discussed in our AI Changing Landscapes report, to remain current in today’s digital world, libraries need to streamline user interactions such as receiving reminders around items that need to be returned and renewed or finding out what events are running at their nearest library.

Bots for all

Whether you’re a social housing association, a local library or a large-scale central government department, efficient and streamlined communications with citizens should be top of the agenda for any public sector organisation. And in today’s on-demand world, citizens have come to expect the same service from government that they get from their bank or favourite online retailer. Enabling AI-powered services is the first step an organisation can take to close the gap between current citizen expectations and reality, as well as to streamline the distribution of vital information and manage requests when demand spikes.


Civica NorthStar

Our innovation lab focused on creating enhanced outcomes for public services

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