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Chatbots Will Help Arkansas Reach Constituents on Facebook Messenger, Amazon Echo

The state is working on two key upgrades: integrated payments within its Gov2Go app and chatbots that answer citizens' questions using machine learning.

Arkansas’ Gov2Go app and foray into citizen-centric services keep getting beefier.

The personal government assistant has been helping citizens perform several government services, and set up reminders for tax payment deadlines and license renewals. What began as a website in 2013 and an app pilot that launched in partnership with NIC in May of 2015 underwent a major update in 2016 that CIO Yessica Jones said added several new features.

“We are targeting the online services that are needed by the largest groups of citizens first, and our next group we are looking at is professional license holders,” Jones said via email. “We are planning a pilot of electricians this summer, and hope to on-board other types of licensees later this year.”

Today, Gov2Go has more than 330,000 user accounts, and provides access to five different services across 108 state and local government agencies, Jones told Government Technology. It also runs on multiple platforms — Web, mobile Web, iOS, Android, Apple Watch and Apple TV. And soon it will be integrated with Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo, making government’s job easier and reaching citizens where they are.

“One thing we’ve learned from our research is that citizens see government as incredibly complicated and difficult to understand,” Jones said via email. “This is why there is a big push in our state to make our applications and website content ‘citizen centric.’ However, citizens still have lots of questions they need help with.”

Government agencies have traditionally approached this problem using the phone, she said, and some agencies have large call centers just to answer questions. Jones pointed to the state’s Office of Child Support Enforcement, which receives thousands of calls each month just to inquire about the status of a payment, and the Game and Fish Commission, which gets hundreds of calls asking about hunting and fishing rules.

Enter chatbots, which is one of two key upgrades that the state Department of Information Systems, which Jones leads, is working on.

“With chatbots, we hope to enable citizens to get answers to many types of questions using machine learning, and with human assistants providing support as needed.”

A chatbot can service most simple and routine citizen questions, and because citizens today prefer corresponding via text versus calling in over the phone, Jones said, the state is reaching constituents over the channel they prefer.

“Facebook and Amazon Echo are just two channels that we can provide this kind of automated, intelligent interaction,” she said. “We can also use SMS and in-app notifications to reach citizens, and we are working on a pilot for this now.”

The second key upgrade, Jones said, is integrated payments.

“With integrated payments, we hope to one day fully automate certain services,” she said. “For example, when it is time to renew your vehicle tags — if the user has chosen to store her payment information in Gov2Go, she can renew her tag in one tap — maybe after responding to a push notification.”

As for Gov2Go on the Apple Watch, launched right when the watch hit the market, Jones said that was considered an experiment to see how that new wearable platform would be used by consumers.

And over the last two years, Jones, who previously served as the state’s deputy CIO, and her team have learned that user interactions on the platform are highly event driven.

“That means the user will only engage with the application if the interaction is relevant to something they are doing at the time,” she said. “Apple Watch users don’t ‘browse’ apps on their wrist — they access them based on an event or a need they have at the time. If an interaction is even the slightest bit complex, like ordering something on Amazon, they will prefer to use the larger screen on their phone.”

As for government interactions, Jones added, citizens almost never perform actions proactively — they interact in response to a notification received via email or some other method.

“Most government interactions will be too complex to perform on a wearable screen, and so we don’t anticipate wearables being a major channel for interaction in Gov2Go,” she said, “although we will continue to research this.”