Understanding the Terminology Around Citizen Service Delivery Technology

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The terminology surrounding these new tools can be confusing and misused

Today’s citizen expects the government to provide easy access to essential services. Whether they’re on a website for Social Security benefits or calling a citizen engagement center about health insurance, citizens demand the same superior customer service from the government that they receive from commercial companies like Amazon and Zappos.

Technologies that mirror human activity, like chatbots and automated voice systems, are garnering a lot of attention from their promises to transform how agencies deliver self-service tools across multiple channels. Artificial intelligence is also receiving a lot of attention for its ability to harness analytics and use machine-learning to imitate human activities and behaviors.

There has been an increased focus by government to enhance self-service options, like the General Services Administration’s (Artificial Intelligence for Citizen Services, which launched in 2017 for agencies interested in leveraging the capabilities of tools like Amazon Alexa, IBM Watson and Google Assistant.

Unfortunately, the terminology surrounding these new tools can be confusing and misused. Understanding the differences between them is important as it impacts both the citizens’ experience and government agencies navigating the procurement process.

To clear up the confusion, here are how the most-discussed technologies transforming citizen service differ:

Robotics Process Automation

RPA is often used interchangeably with AI, and although originally there were some similarities and overlaps, they are both very different tools. While AI uses complicated processes and machine learning to make human-like decisions, RPA is a scripted, robotic program that automates repetitive, high-frequency business process functions. It does not use “intelligence” to make decisions, but rather is “trained” to run through a detailed set of rules to perform processes. It is designed to free up staff from the high-volume, repeatable and less-complex tasks such as queries, calculations and maintenance of records and transactions—enabling them to focus their efforts on more hands-on, complicated citizen concerns.

Artificial Intelligence

While it can sometimes feel like every new or emerging technologies is labeled as “AI,” artificial intelligence simply uses business rules from multiple data sources to determine the intent of the user and then helps in making decisions. For example, AI can be applied within an intelligent virtual assistant to help a citizen complete a task or resolve an issue. The IVA can ask citizens questions and then, using its AI, appear human-like by making a decision and crafting a response based on the original intent. Ultimately, AI cannot make the decision for the citizen, but it can guide them in making the next best decision.


A “bot” (short for a robot) is an automated program that can reply to messages in text, emails, or chat sessions to perform routine tasks like discussed with RPA above. Bots can bring value to federal programs as a digital tool for enhancing the citizen experience. Like the IVA, bots also leverage AI technology to help interact with the citizen in new, more efficient ways. Chatbots are often exaggerated as free-standing, self-service tools that need no human support, but like anything utilizing AI, they are only as good as their training and can still require human intervention to achieve the best outcomes.

Cognitive Computing

While AI can’t make a decision for a human, cognitive computing can help the user make a quicker decision. Cognitive computing uses self-learning algorithms like pattern recognition, natural language processing, and mining vast amounts of data to closely mimic how the human brain works. Rather than clicking through a series of buttons over the phone to select the service they want, cognitive computing uses predictive algorithms to pre-determine what the user is trying to do. For example, a cognitive computing system will ask a citizen calling, “Your certification renewal is due in three weeks. Are you calling to renew today?”

By understanding and navigating the confusing technology surrounding citizen services, agencies can ensure they are equipped with the right technology tools to aid the public they serve. Using these technologies, citizens can attain the information they need earlier, and get connected with the right resource when necessary, resulting in a more positive experience.

Andy Beamon is vice president of Digital Solutions for Citizen Services at MAXIMUS Federal.