Can chatbots improve government customer service?

Federal digital and customer experience experts are telling feds how AI and machine learning, including bots, can expand and improve customer service.

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Chatbots, the automated messaging programs that carry on conversations with users, may soon be answering citizen questions about government services.

DigitalGov University hosted "Automatic for the People: AI, Machine Learning and Chatbots for Digital Customer Service in Government" at the General Services Administration headquarters June 28 to discuss how advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, including bots, can expand and improve digital customer service.

The event took place four years to the day after GSA launched the SocialGov program, which helps agencies' human employees collaborate and share best practices in order to improve government services.

"It's touching that here four years later we're talking about that next phase," Justin Herman, the lead for open government and "SocialGov" efforts at GSA's Technology Transformation Service, said.

And while actual government examples are still rare, the speakers stressed that the potential use cases are real and widespread. 

As more people are using government services online -- and asking questions about those services via digital channels -- the number of daily online queries to some agencies have already hit hundreds per day. "What happens when it becomes thousands of questions a day?" Herman asked. "[Customers] have every right to expect meaningful and timely information brought to them. It's information that we have."

Bots could also improve accessibility to services for people with disabilities or speakers of foreign languages. The idea is to get people the information they need, when and how they need it, Herman said, "without it necessarily being limited to the human being who's sitting behind the keyboard."

As an example from the private sector, Franco Amalfi, the director of Digital Engagement Strategy for Oracle Canada, demonstrated how automation is used in pizza delivery. If you log onto a pizza service, it remembers the last pizza you ordered and asks if you want to order the same type. The bot also remembers your payment information.

While the government doesn't deliver pizzas, there are potential uses for this type of application. Amalfi demonstrated how a person could send a message or text asking to "pay my property tax," the bot could respond with questions refining the request, followed by a security code to confirm the transaction.

IBM's, Neal Goffman, whose AI interface Watson is being used to route calls in customer services platforms by analyzing the language and tone of a caller, touted the always-on aspect of machine services.

"AI solutions don't forget. They don't have a bad night's rest," said Goffman. "Watson doesn't get tired."