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In Indiana, Hints of Government Chatbots Entering Maturity

With residents clamoring for services and information, many agencies turned to chatbots during the pandemic. But aside from simply gaining momentum in adoption, it seems government use of the technology is also maturing.

The pandemic has made chatbots a staple of state and local government — but more than that, it appears those public-sector agencies are starting to mature in their use of the technology as well.

That’s the thesis of Ish Jindal, founder of the chatbot company Tars, which has unexpectedly found itself working with government agencies in states including Indiana, Missouri and Texas. Since he started the company in 2016, he’s seen public-sector officials shift from an exploratory mindset to a more purposeful one.

“People were clueless earlier as to how they would want to use a technology like this, whereas right now, people come with what challenges they want to solve,” he said. “They have very specific advanced questions as well about the technology.”

So far, the most momentum in chatbot adoption is at the state level — that’s where Tars has had the most success, and Center for Digital Government* surveys have found states using them more than cities and counties as well. In Indiana, where Tars has been working with the INBiz economic development effort for three years, the chatbot was successful enough that a second agency has started using it.

Broadly speaking, chatbots offer governments a tool by which residents can help themselves, often reducing the burden on call centers to field questions and making for a better experience for the person seeking help. At INBiz, that might mean directing a potential business owner to the paperwork they will need to fill out, or helping an entrepreneur answer tax questions.

Another big benefit to the state is that the chatbot doesn’t take breaks, so it can help people when the state’s offices aren’t open. So far this year, the chatbot has had nearly 70,000 interactions. The vast majority of those — about 85 percent — have come outside business hours.

The INBiz chatbot demonstrates another mature use of government chatbots. The team didn’t simply deploy the chatbot and walk away. At the end of a user’s session, the bot will ask whether their question was answered and ask for a star rating. Tucker Walden, who manages the bot, uses that information to improve the bot.

“Most of the time, if it's just what they needed, usually [they leave] no review, because they got to where they need it, and they'll close out [the] chatbot,” he said. “And so the amount of no-reviews we have is astonishing, actually, and then our positive reviews outweigh the negative reviews.”

The pandemic helped accelerate the use of chatbots at every level because of an increased demand for government services and ever-changing information about business restrictions. But Jindal believes this is just the beginning. The maturation of government chatbot use, he said, will make it a more common — and therefore more appealing — option for many agencies.

“Whoever has a lot of customer interaction or citizen interaction, like think about any [department of motor vehicles] out there, department of transportation — all of these departments have a lot of interaction with the public out there, and this technology would make a lot of difference to the experience out there. I think a lot of agencies are now starting to adopt, but still, I think the thing with government is people don't want to be the first one out. They want to see who gets something working out and then implemented. They don't want to be the first one. But we should see a lot, lot more of these deployments happening across agencies.”

*The Center for Digital Education is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.