Blog - A Look at Conversational AI in the Public Sector and How it Works

The public sector often gets a bad rap for customer service and efficiency. The old cliché about being stuck in a department of motor vehicles dealing with disengaged staff, long waits, and cumbersome processes is firmly implanted in the brains of millions of Americans. But it is important to understand that the public sector is often faced with limited budgets, available staff, and restrictions on hiring resources. This means it's not easy for public sector managers to address citizen complaints about efficiency and customer service by simply hiring new staff.

Consider some of the fundamental issues facing our public sector organizations:

Large Numbers of Customers

Public sector organizations can have from thousands to hundreds of millions of customers to serve. Consider an organization like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Particularly as tax season approaches, the IRS may have to field millions of questions from filers. These inquiries can be overwhelming and hinder public sector staff from performing their primary job duties.

Even smaller organizations serving single municipalities often feel overwhelmed by the number of requests, inquiries, and comments they receive. While they don’t have the same number of customers as major federal agencies, their staff sizes are also significantly smaller, meaning the ratio of customers to staff can be even worse for small public sector organizations than for agencies and departments at the federal level.

Rapidly Changing Situations

The past two years of a global pandemic have taught us that the role of federal, state, and local governments can be very prominent in the lives of customers and that the situations these governments are engaged in can change rapidly.

It can be extremely difficult to harmonize messaging and disseminate rapidly changing information across entire public sector agencies virtually overnight. This risks staff providing outdated or incorrect information to customers or providing conflicting and confusing messaging to the public at large.

Repetitive Requests

The irony in the high volume of customer inquiries to public sector agencies is that there is often an extremely small number of discreet requests that make up the vast majority of that volume. For example, a city road department might get a flood of calls right after a major snowstorm to ask about plowing, road closures, and emergency parking rules; or a city administration department might get frequent inquiries about current local COVID-19 mask rules. The inefficiencies of answering the same questions over and over again should be obvious.

The good news for the public sector is that these types of constraints are precisely the types of issues conversational AI is perfect for addressing. Conversational AI can act as a force multiplier for resource-strapped public sector organizations to help them deliver the best possible service to their customers.

Customer Satisfaction

As noted above, the public sector often has a notorious reputation for poor service. This is a frustrating reality for many public sector workers and leaders because one of the reasons many of them entered public service in the first place is to help their communities.

Given the inherent tensions between departmental budgets, providing fair and competitive wages and benefits for public sector staff, workforce constraints, and the large communities the public sector serves, options are limited for ensuring high-quality service.

One way to build efficiencies is to leverage pre-programmed phone systems that take callers through a series of questions and prompts to triage their calls. Callers often become extremely frustrated with these systems and lament how hard it is to "talk to a human being." The flip side of this is that if public sector organizations exclusively used humans to answer the phones, call wait times would be extraordinarily high, which would cause customer complaints as well.

Conversational AI can give public sector organizations the best of both worlds.

While conversational AI cannot fully replace human staff, its capabilities are leaps and bounds beyond what can be accomplished with traditional phone answering systems; and because conversational AI is not human workers, it’s far easier and less expensive to scale than adding more human workers.

What Is Conversational AI?

A brief overview of conversational AI and how it works is helpful to better understand just how valuable it can be to the public sector.

Conversational AI is a set of technologies that enable devices and applications to communicate directly with humans using the natural language of humans through a choice of multiple conversation channels. Natural language refers to the way humans communicate, using syntax and grammar that have developed over thousands of years, in contrast to artificial languages used by computers, like Java, XML, or C#. Conversational AI allows humans to talk to computers without having to understand computer code or use a graphical user interface ("GUI") to enter information.

Conversational AI platforms, also known as “CAIP,” are applications and devices that allow humans to interact using conversational AI. Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa are common examples familiar to many. Other examples include applications programmed to answer customer phone calls, such as those to banks or other financial institutions, which are often used by customers to check balances or make payments, for example. But CAIP can also include chat functions, in addition to speech. Many readers have probably been prompted by a conversational AI bot on certain websites. Some might not have even realized they were simply chatting with a computer application and not a human.

Conversational AI Use Cases for the Public Sector

Some use cases for conversational AI are probably readily apparent to those who understand the constraints of the public sector and the capabilities of conversational AI. Let’s consider a few in brief.

Directing Customers to Information

Often customers contact public sector organizations just to look for information. A traditional phone answering program might simply direct callers to the agency website, which can be complex and confusing; indeed, many times customers are only contacting an agency directly precisely because they’re having trouble navigating the website.

Conversational AI – whether used as a chatbot, mobile device, or answering system – can direct customers more efficiently by better understanding the specific inquiries. Conversational AI may even be able to answer some basic questions on the spot itself, instead of directing customers where to find that information.

Appointment Reminders and Scheduling

Many public sector organizations prefer customers schedule appointments for visits as opposed to just walking in. This preference has become even more commonplace amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, schedules change, and conflicts arise from time to time, and it's often a frustrating and cumbersome process to make a simple appointment scheduling change. Conversational AI can eliminate many of the obstacles to smooth scheduling and rescheduling that often plague alternative solutions. Conversational AI can also be leveraged to automatically notify customers to remind them of upcoming appointments or to solicit feedback on the customer experience.

Communicating Complex Information

Imagine trying to solve a tax question by following a stream of prompts from an old-school phone answering program. There are so many potential questions and follow-up questions and nuances to questions that such a legacy system can't be programmed to efficiently and comprehensively address the universe of potential questions and issues.

Conversational AI, on the other hand, can "think" in real-time and process and understand customer questions as they arise without the need to program in pre-determined responses to a multitude of anticipated questions.

Given some of the deeply ingrained impressions of the public sector, customers may think the last thing they want out of government bureaucracy is another computer to talk to. But conversational AI is a far cry from the stale and confounding answering programs many customers are probably familiar with.

Conversational AI in the public sector has the promise to achieve greater customer service and efficiency at lower costs than traditional methods of providing service, benefits that should be universally desirable in any industry.

Conversation AI to Complete Forms

As emerging technology progresses, conversational AI can also assist customers in filling out dreaded government forms that can easily integrate with back-office systems. Imaging using a chatbot guide you in filling out a form for registering a vehicle in a new County and collecting your payment of taxes. Or, using your mobile device to register for a college class or check the availability of a dorm room. If you work in the public sector, think about how easy it would be to use a chatbot to log an IT service ticket or check your vacation time for a much-needed break from your job!

Conversation AI is on the “easy street” to make our lives more enjoyable and satisfying.

Sound like something you and your organization need right now?Just reach out to learn more about NITCO’s Conversational AI solutions for you and your public sector customers.