In the last few weeks days, our world has changed and service delivery is no longer just about access. As governments around the world embrace digital platforms, new challenges have emerged. Chetan Choudury FRSA looks at some of the best examples of governments using AI to deliver services.
Going digital does not mean that services will automatically be better. Digital platforms are only vehicles for the efficient deployment of resources; the crux is having the right strategy in place and then using digital platforms to achieve strategic goals.
Once we come out on the other side of the Covid-19 crisis, we will be all be witnessing a new normal. Governments across the world have already been undergoing and undertaking transformation to move themselves and their citizenry into a ‘digital first’ world. The current crisis will rapidly shift this transformation to ‘digital by default’, as public servants and innovators try to figure out ways to ensure services are up and running, and can be consumed by citizens from their homes with minimal face-to-face interaction or human intervention.
An overwhelming theme in service delivery today is time; people do not want to spend time going to various offices to complete standard tasks. The more time that residents have at their disposal, the more productive they are and this has the knock-on effect of increasing the economic productivity of each member of society. Let us look at a few examples.
As part of its efforts to deliver world-class government services, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a nation of about 10 million people in the Middle East, has studied extensively what its residents and citizens need in services. As residents here, we have witnessed superior leadership vision and exemplary implementation to understand citizen these needs and expectations, and to deliver world class services using the latest technological tools. One innovative example is the Dubai Municipality's 24/7 mobile application, which allows users in the emirate of Dubai to apply for services and track their applications through notifications on their smartphones. It is designed as a smart solution for anything related to the municipality and reduces the need for contact centres or trips to a service centre. Customers can raise requests for general waste removal or file a complaint against construction noise without the need of calling in. Recently, the app has helped the Municipality teams deal with waterlogging issues around the city.
The 24/7 application is part of a larger trend of applications that use AI-powered chatbots to field requests and handle queries. These chatbots have the ability to handle requests in a fraction of the time that a person would need to do similar tasks. The result is less time expenditure dealing with a government service and more time availability for the residents to go on with their day.
Some other examples would include: the bilingual AI chatbot ‘Mahboub’, launched in 2018 by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai, which communicates with customers on about 90 services; AI powered Rammas application to handle customer inquiries (which processed about 700,000 inquiries in the first year of operations) by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA); and the AI-enabled advisor called Rashid created by Smart Dubai to answer questions of residents and tourists on many topics including starting a business, transportation, visas, entertainment and shopping.
Some estimates have found that 67% of worldwide consumers have used a chatbot for customer support in the last year. Industry analysts forecast that a staggering 85% of all customer interactions will be handled by a chatbot in the next 10 years. While those figures pertain mostly to the private sector, some governments like the UAE are pushing forward with plans to use more chatbots to ease service delivery. This makes good sense at the governmental level; chatbots decrease the workload of government employees and free them up for other more critical tasks. Similar chatbot applications have been used in the US, UKand Australia but the UAE seems to have an edge in terms of the sheer number of services transitioning to chatbots, in addition to other available channels.
The government of Singapore, for example, uses a Facebook messenger chatbot that assists residents and visitors with vital information about events happening in the country. Residents can even log complaints and track claims on any public service via the chatbot. Back in the UAE, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority operates a chatbot on Google’s artificial intelligence platform. The bot has processed close to 700,000 customer requests in the first year of operations and is able to handle payments as well. The UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention launched the Covid-19 Virtual Doctor as part of the efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic. It is an online bot to assess potential cases of coronavirus, filter queries and direct them to the right channel, and thus take the strain off medical services.
A chatbot is a significant manifestation of how governments can adopt AI to improve services. Since they are powered by AI algorithms, chatbots are able to deliver not just a service but experiences that are personalised. Governments are also able to use these chatbots to build the customer experience into something based entirely on needs backed up by raw data. The result is simplified services and curated experiences. That is how Australia uses chatbots to help citizens with their taxes. The AI-powered bots are able to handle requests much faster than their human counterparts. What more could a resident ask for from the government?
These incredible platforms need not conceal the fact that efficient service experiences do not have to be digital. They need to be based on knowledge of what users need. If a digital platform is the best way to deliver that service, then it is the best way forward. In fact, with the recent scenario in context, a digital platform may perhaps be the only way forward in a number of cases. A chatbot can help governments to maintain service continuity when their physical service centres or call centres get closed due to exigencies.
Governments can use these new platforms to reorient their service delivery framework to meet customers where they are without reinventing the first mile. Concerns regarding privacy and data ownership will continue to get raised especially when we see a slew of tracing apps and health monitors dominating our lives. Governments and private companies will need to tread this path carefully and be ready with all answers so that rights are not violated. But it goes without saying that technological innovation has opened a new realm of possibilities for governments serving their citizens. And, service delivery sits right at the frontline of these important shifts.
Chetan Choudhury is a strategy and policy professional, and has worked with federal and state governments in the US, Canada and the UAE in the areas of innovation, technology integration and public service design and delivery.