Survey data shows that most U.S. counties are either already using chatbots or plan to soon. The COVID-19 pandemic is a big reason why, but their flexibility means they're also serving other purposes.
Expect to see more chatbots on local government websites in the next year or so, if they aren’t there already.
In the 2020 Digital Counties survey, which collected responses from public officials in dozens of counties across the country, about 25 percent of respondents said they were already using chatbots, and another 39 percent said they had plans to start using them in the next 18 months. The remaining 36 percent said they had no plans to start using the chatbots.
The responses came in before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, an event that has pushed many governments to rapidly adopt technologies they either had little interest in or were eyeing for future use.
That includes chatbots, which county governments have used to help handle a massive influx of questions from the public. The idea is that chatbots, which typically use some form of AI algorithm, can handle common questions and leave less common or more complicated questions for human staff to answer.
Since the sample size was relatively small — and larger counties generally had a higher participation rate than smaller ones — the data shouldn’t be treated as a nationally representative sample. However, it does provide a picture of the general state of chatbots in local government.
The results also suggested that larger counties are using chatbots at a higher rate than smaller ones, a finding consistent with many other subjects in local government technology; larger jurisdictions often have more resources and funding to experiment.
Here’s how counties in the survey said they were using chatbots.
Most of the counties that described chatbots for the Digital Counties program talked about bots that had a definite list of questions that they were capable of answering — in other words, we aren’t talking about Asimov-style intelligences that can learn to solve new problems and answer new questions on their own.
Rather, the IT department might spend time configuring the chatbot before it goes live in order to work on how the bot recognizes and responds to questions.
They are often structured for triage, the weeding out of people whose questions can be answered easily so that call-takers can focus on people whose questions will take more effort. That’s especially important during the pandemic because, as many vendors and governments have documented, people have been turning to the government a lot more than usual during the pandemic for things like health testing, unemployment insurance and other kinds of assistance.
In King County, Wash., for example, a chatbot helped identify which people calling for a professional nurse had coronavirus-like symptoms and which didn’t. The county estimated that the chatbot saved 35 percent of the time nurses had been spending speaking to people without those symptoms.
A lot of the counties surveyed used their chatbots for COVID-19-related purposes. But they often extended beyond that as well.
Placer County, Calif., for example, has a bot called Ask Placer capable of answering more than 375 questions. San Joaquin County, Calif., and Fairfax County, Va., both worked with other departments to figure out what their needs were and what their most frequent questions were so that they could build those into their chatbots.
And in Cabarrus County, N.C., the chatbot was integrated with Laserfiche technology in order to help people use digital services. The chatbot is capable of pulling in information from other systems in order to help the user. Since digital services have become a necessity for many government agencies that have found themselves transitioning to telework during the pandemic, tools to help citizens use digital services make a lot of sense.
A key feature of chatbots is that they’re designed to answer a growing number of questions over time. Many counties reported using data analysis tools to follow the kinds of questions citizens were asking — as well as the ways they were asking them — so that they could add answers to those questions over time, and so bots can learn how to respond to variations.
Chatbots can also take inputs in many different forms, which gives them the unique ability to serve citizens across multiple channels. Washington County, Ark., is working on a bot that works with texting, while Placer and King counties integrated with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa so residents could access the bots with their voices.
San Joaquin County also built its bot to work in three languages, with more planned for the future.
It seems likely, given the survey results and the trends of government technology during the pandemic, that now is a time of growth for government chatbots. Especially if they can help make digital services, emergency operations and telework more workable for local governments, their usefulness might make them hard for many jurisdictions to ignore.
Since this is a new question for Center for Digital Government (CDG)* surveys, Government Technology will aim to track adoption trends in the future.
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.
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