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Online Government Services Need a ‘Human Copilot’

Despite progress toward digital services, people are still getting left on the outside looking in. For those having trouble navigating online government, connecting with staff for assistance might be the answer.

Form, function and symbolism came together at the beginning of the year when Microsoft announced the addition of an “AI copilot” button on its PC keyboard — the first such change since 1994. That single copilot key is the first tactile representation of the corporation’s $13 billion investment in OpenAI and signals the coming integration of generative AI into its full product range. It came with a first-mover-advantage vibe at a high-stakes moment — and made a new form of help only a keystroke away.

The move mirrors the arrival of the commodity Internet to government a quarter century ago. At the time, the “e-” prefix was being applied to any number of common activities to signal their (promised) transformation from atoms to bits: e-commerce, e-banking, e-learning and so on. Forward-thinking elected officials and a good number of public agencies, along with some system integrators, software companies and scrappy startups, quickly adopted the e-government shorthand before many first movers matured and adopted the more broadly scoped and longer-lasting moniker of “digital government.”

The promise of e-government was to use technology in government operations to deliver services more efficiently, interact with citizens more effectively, and make governance processes more transparent and accountable. But that vision does not include two factors that drove the pursuit of e-government then and are making GenAI so alluring now: increasing capacity and reducing the cost of a unit of service.

The root proposition was and is exchanging technology for labor. Demand for government services exceeds the manual and mechanical
means of delivering them; automation offers the opportunity to increase capacity without increasing headcount.

Or so we thought.

There are second thoughts these days. Consider the people I met and talked with for hours at a recent Digital Government Summit.* They work in state and local government — most in IT or service delivery — and were joined by representatives of the tech industry.

In sessions focused on AI, citizen experience and plotting a course forward, a couple of related themes dominated the conversation. On an arbitrary show-of-hands 5-point scale administered by the moderator (me), no one in a well-attended session rated the experiences residents were having at over 3; most were only 2.

Attendees spoke about their personal experiences and those of their friends and family in dealing with government online or through apps. Many had tried to apply for services or complete transactions with mixed results. Even simple interactions were described as time-consuming and further complicated by unclear instructions and counterintuitive user interfaces.

Several attendees brought stories of disappointing results with digital services for people with disabilities and other marginalized communities.

Some suggested that as web and mobile have become the primary intersection between government and the people it serves, digital services would — and should — be the measure of government’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.

The original bargain of exchanging technology for labor may have missed the mark by 2024 standards, or maybe it was destined to get us only so far.

Perhaps it is time to consider a “Human Copilot” button that would connect people having problems in navigating online experiences with carbon-based copilots who can help. Of course, few public agencies are anxious to expand the footprint and headcounts of their call centers. That’s why they got into e-government in the first place.

Public libraries are doing the work of digital wayfinding in many communities on an informal basis. They don’t call them resource librarians for nothing. There are other community-based possibilities as well, something like an expanded 211 presence. They were created to provide a centralized resource for individuals seeking information and referrals to essential community services, including providing help in paying bills, finding food and locating other resources. These community responses could play a vital role in completing the digital government ecosystem.

That is not to say that AI copilots cannot help in all of this. They can and undoubtedly will come alongside people to help fill in the gaps. But a modern intelligent user interface assistant by itself — a Clippy on AI steroids, if you will — won’t get the job done by itself.

*Digital Government Summits are hosted by Government Technology.

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.