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12 Steps Local Governments Can Take to Successfully Use AI

Washoe County, Nev., CIO Behzad Zamanian outlines how public-sector agencies can take what they learned from the rise of the Internet and apply it to artificial intelligence as a tool to deliver better services.

A person holding out their hand with "Ai" and "ChatGPT" as well as other symbols hovering above their palm.
Over 70 years ago, The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling sat in a director’s chair, using his thought-provoking predictions and imaginative work to explore the dangers of blind reliance on machines. Although Serling’s cautionary themes were fictional, his prophecies have manifested in reality. Artificial intelligence is here, and it is crucial to engage in critical thinking regarding the implementation and regulation of AI and machine learning to shape its future impact in a way that aligns with human-centric values within organizations.

Machine learning algorithms and intelligent systems now enable government agencies to analyze vast amounts of information, identify patterns and make informed decisions with exceptional speed and accuracy. In this context, the AI revolution presents opportunities to improve service delivery and optimize operational effectiveness, which we at Washoe County, Nev., defined as IT’s primary technology goals. This means it would be careless to ignore AI as we develop our technology road map.

Government agencies can utilize AI for cost savings, enhanced service delivery, improved public safety and security, fraud detection and prevention, data analytics and regulatory compliance. Most importantly, AI-powered tools can revolutionize citizen services and engagement, which is supposed to be the core of what we do in local government.

However, the integration of AI in government does not come without challenges. Ethical considerations, such as fairness, transparency and privacy, must be carefully addressed to ensure that AI systems are used responsibly and do not violate people’s rights. Additionally, the need for workforce reskilling and capacity building arises as governments adapt to the changing landscape and harness the full potential of AI technologies.

The AI revolution resembles previous technology revolutions such as the rise of the Internet and shares some similarities in terms of its transformative impact on society and technology. Both the AI and Internet revolutions transformed how government agencies’ business processes worked and operated. And both revolutions raise ethical and societal concerns. This means we should learn from our experiences and create regulations and be prepared for AI adoption.

Here are some thoughts as local governments integrate AI into our daily operations:

  • Ethical Issues: We are all now aware of ethical implications of using the Internet. With AI, it is even more important to address things such as privacy, bias, accountability, social impacts, security and transparency. By doing so, we can avoid potential negative consequences and build systems that are fair, unbiased and beneficial to everyone.
  • Regulation and Governance: The Internet revolution demonstrated the need for regulation and governance frameworks. Governments and policymakers should actively participate in shaping AI policies and regulations to ensure responsible and accountable development, deployment and use of AI technologies. Local governments should also establish clear data governance policies and practices to ensure responsible use of data in AI applications. This includes addressing issues of data privacy, security, misuse, transparency and accountability.
  • User Education: We all went through a learning curve with the Internet. Similarly, in the AI revolution, it is crucial to empower individuals with knowledge about AI, its capabilities, limitations and potential risks.
  • Interagency Collaboration and Partnership: The Internet revolution demonstrated the power of collaboration across agencies through standardization and consolidation of services. The AI revolution can benefit from interagency work involving staff, policymakers and other stakeholders. Engaging with the broader ecosystem can help address challenges, share best practices and accelerate AI adoption.
  • Privacy and Security: Just like Internet cybersecurity issues, we must address privacy regulations, establish and enforce privacy protocols, and follow best practices.
  • Equity and Accessibility: The Internet revolution highlighted the importance of inclusivity and ensuring equal access to digital resources. Similarly, efforts should be made to ensure that AI technologies are accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity or geographic location.
  • Planning: Just like other new technologies, local governments should include AI as part of their technology planning process to ensure proper assessment of current state and identification of areas where AI can bring value.
  • Data Analytics: This is one area where government is way behind the private sector. AI relies on high-quality, diverse and well-organized data; therefore, we in local government should invest in building data infrastructure and analysis capabilities.
  • Talent Augmentation: Every new technology changes people’s job functions, and AI will definitely have a major impact on changing how most people work. Investing in training programs, workshops and educational initiatives can help develop the necessary skills among government employees. This may involve reskilling existing staff, hiring data scientists and AI specialists, and providing opportunities for continuous learning.
  • Pilot Projects: Proof-of-concept types of projects are a great way to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of AI applications. Local governments can identify potential challenges, refine their approach, and gain valuable insights before scaling up. Here at Washoe County, we are exploring the implementation of an AI-driven chatbot as a pilot project.
  • Legal and Regulatory Considerations: Local government is bound to certain legal and regulatory protocols, so reviewing existing regulations, identifying gaps and developing new policies and guidelines specific to AI is paramount.
  • Community Engagement: Local governments should communicate the benefits, risks and impacts of AI initiatives to their communities and seek public input, address concerns and answer questions. Introducing a new technology to residents may prove very challenging, but transparency and inclusivity are key to building public trust and acceptance of AI tools.
By taking these steps, local governments can lay the foundation for successful AI adoption, promoting innovation, efficiency and improved public services. Moreover, policymakers and executives must build organizational awareness, incentivize employees to play a role in identifying AI risks, support building the necessary data infrastructure, and direct staff to take actions to craft the future of data-driven decision-making — beginning now.

Behzad Zamanian is the chief information officer for Washoe County, Nev., and previously served as CIO of Huntington Beach, Calif.