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Citizen Engagement Tools Build Trust, Public Access to Government

AI-powered chatbots and translation tools are just some of the offerings available to state and local governments looking to connect with residents and increase civic participation.

close up of a hand scrolling on a smartphone
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The rise of digital government has pushed agencies to implement various communication channels both for distributing and receiving constituent information.

While government agencies have taken to social media in recent years to communicate with the public, the social media landscape has changed a lot in the past year. For example, the rebranding of the Twitter platform to X and process changes for getting accounts verified pushed hundreds of government agencies to open accounts on Threads, a new competing platform from Meta. At a policy level, the Supreme Court’s September 2023 announcement that it was going to take on a case about social media censorship may impact state and local governments’ communication strategies. Essentially, it addresses state laws that seek to regulate social media platforms.

For this reason, technology solutions that can enhance public engagement play an increasingly important role for government. When intentionally implemented to enhance communications, chatbots can be one such tool. For example, Citibot, which offers customers an AI-powered chat tool, aims to help build public trust through an equity lens, according to CEO Bratton Riley.

As Riley explained it, the tool allows constituents to communicate with government through various channels, including text message or web, using 71 languages. He also underlined that “engagement” is often used conceptually rather than in definable terms. For Citibot, the aim is to help governments meet the specific goals they are pursuing, such as engagement related to specific initiatives.

Chatbots can also help government agencies in the face of staffing shortages. For example, Riley said chat tools can help build capacity in 311 call centers to mitigate wait times and help save staff time to address more complex issues. AI helps make interactions more conversational, while using publicly available government-created content as a data source.

The tool measures how many residents are serviced and how much time it saves both government and residents. Citibot expects to continue adding channels through which governments can use this tech; the company is starting with WhatsApp, because over half of the Latino population are regular users.

Wordly’s technology product was created from a similar perspective, with an aim to make government communications more equitable for all constituents. According to Chief Marketing Officer Dave Deasy, the primary challenge the platform solves is language inclusivity. It enables everyone access to civic engagement, regardless of the language they speak or their ability to hear.

Deasy argued that many local governments want to be more inclusive and accessible but are hindered by cost and complexity; Wordly aims to solve that.

The top public-sector use case currently is local governments bringing live translation to city council meetings, Deasy said. The value for cities with limited resources is that the use of AI provides live translation — virtually or in person — in 48 languages, and at roughly the same cost as hiring one human interpreter. Notably, the tool has a customizable glossary, so cities can define certain unique terminology, include the names of officials and even block hate speech.

The platform collects data to measure how many people are using it and in which languages; Deasy said customers often run surveys to get supplemental resident feedback. The city owns the text translated by Wordly’s products, which can be stored or discarded at the city’s discretion.

The company is working to add additional capabilities like new languages — like Haitian Creole — and AI-generated transcript summaries.

This article is part of a series looking at the gov tech companies bringing their expertise to areas seeing major growth in the market, which originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.