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Harnessing AI to Drive a More Personal Government Experience

Cities both in the U.S. and around the world are taking a forward-thinking digital approach to government experience, using automation and data analytics to better engage with residents and predict their needs.

San Diego, Calif.
Auckland, New Zealand’s cosmopolitan yet outdoorsy lifestyle, set amid an abundance of parkland, water and inactive volcanic cones, is a big part of why the city is among the world’s fastest-growing and most livable. But so, too, is its progressive, technology-forward approach to the services it provides its 1.7 million residents. Through a broad digitalization initiative by the Auckland Council, citizens can, via a single online portal, register feedback, report and request a fix for a maintenance issue like a pothole that needs filling, and track their request through to resolution via text or email alerts.

While the ease at which citizens can access city services may not top residents’ list of things that make Auckland so appealing, it certainly is impacting how they experience municipal services. Maintenance requests that once took 55 steps now take 10, thanks to automation. The average length of a customer service call has dropped by 2.5 minutes; often, citizens don’t have to use the phone at all because they can accomplish what they need to online and via mobile device.

Outcomes like these are well within reach when public entities take a cue from other consumer-focused industries by designing everything with the customer — their citizens and employees — in mind, and in the process, reinventing how they deliver services to their customers. Better citizen experiences are at the heart of that reinvention. There’s a growing realization in places like Provo, Utah, and San Diego, Calif., that providing smooth, rich, e-commerce-like interactions improves customer experience, which in turn builds connection and trust with constituents. In San Diego, for example, the general public is using a new “Get It Done!” app to register requests with the city, to repair a sidewalk, for example. The app automatically forwards requests to the work order management system, seamlessly processing thousands of requests per day.

By streamlining and automating processes and systems, and using data to augment more decisions, public agencies also benefit from substantial efficiency gains, which they can then use to deliver even more value to constituents and employees, using fewer resources. Suddenly, the old stigma of the lumbering, stuck-in-its-ways and unresponsive bureaucracy no longer applies.

For an idea of what becoming an agile, customer-centric organization might entail, we'll look at another Kiwi city, Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island. Christchurch’s City Council set out to transform how it engages with citizens after an earthquake exposed the shortcomings of the outdated systems on which the city of 380,000 people was relying. The foundation for that transformation is a public-facing digital interface that enables citizens and businesses to easily access 46 different city services through multiple channels, including mobile. Using the portal, a person can, for example, request that a broken streetlight be fixed, and in the process, upload a photo and use a GIS tool to pinpoint location, all from their mobile device.

Behind the customer-facing online engagement platform is a cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) system that enables seamless integration between citizen-facing functions, city departments and the resources to fulfill inbound requests. The system processes requests and turns them into work orders, then automatically directs them to the City Council’s preferred vendors and contractors for quick resolution. Requests that once required multiple touchpoints and significant time to resolve are now often completed within hours or days instead of weeks, with just one touchpoint. Ultimately, the more services citizens can access and the more they can accomplish through a single, easy-to-use online engagement platform, the better their experience with those services and the agencies that provide them are likely to be.

As important as this tight digital integration is during the normal course of business, it’s even more valuable in a crisis. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province of Bolzano, Italy, hastily launched a program to provide financial relief to professionals and small businesses. Using an end-to-end solution accessed on the citizen-facing side, provincial officials could quickly field, process and fill grant requests for constituents in need. The same type of solution enabled the city of Hamburg, Germany, to roll out a similar €50 billion coronavirus grant program. Within 24 hours of launch, IFB Hamburg, the city’s central funding agency, had processed the first batch of applications.

These examples hint at the possibilities for public entities to enrich the experiences they provide when various agencies and resources within the value chain are synced to a single source of truth. When multiple agencies, from federal down to the community level, are connected digitally and can work from the same data, they gain a full picture of the common constituents they serve. Having a single, unified view of an individual or a household creates opportunities to offer predictive, hyperpersonalized services. By applying AI- and machine learning-driven predictive tools to that data, public entities can begin to proactively offer and connect people with services throughout their lifetimes. A child’s fifth birthday could trigger a city’s school system to send to the child’s parents an opportunity to register them for kindergarten. If that child has special educational needs, separate agencies could provide the parents with information on programs, new grant opportunities, etc., to support the child’s journey. It’s the agency initiating the interaction with the constituent instead of the other way around.

What’s more, with experience management capabilities, entities can gather feedback in the moment, during key points in the citizen journey, then analyze and act upon that data to continually improve the outcomes their services provide. In Provo, Utah, city officials are using experience management tools to gather real-time feedback from city residents, then analyze and act upon that data. Robust response rates to surveys on issues like quality of life, real estate and zoning have yielded a dramatic increase in civic engagement and a wealth of new actionable insight for the city. “We can grab real-time information from people,” explained then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, “and know how they’re feeling about issues.”

As the Christchurch City Council is demonstrating, there’s also valuable business intelligence to be found in the data. Using geospatial technology and analytics, the city can visualize geographical trends in the service requests it receives (for example, why is one neighborhood experiencing so many storm drainage problems?) and deploy resources to address an issue. It also provides elected officials with deeper insight into constituent priorities and needs.

That’s exactly the kind of insight public entities can use to behave more like today’s best-in-class business-to-consumer organizations and deliver the elevated, digitally enabled journeys that contribute to a better quality of life for the people they serve.

Paul O'Sullivan is a solutions expert in the SAP Public Sector Industry Cloud and Industry Solutions team.  Paul has supported public sector at SAP since 2005. He focuses on SAP Public Sector’s solutions for customer experience, grants and social protection. Paul has BSc in Computer Science and Math from University College Cork, Ireland, and currently lives outside SAP’s Newtown Square office in Pennsylvania with his wife and two teenage children.