August 15, 2017

AI: Coming to a Government Office Near You

Vintage telephone
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

By watching a movie on Netflix, chatting with Siri, or even driving past one of the autonomous vehicles roaming the streets, we are interacting with forms of artificial intelligence (AI) on a near daily basis. AI — the programming or training of a computer to do tasks typically reserved for human intelligence — will soon permeate the ways we interact with our government, too. In my new paper for the Harvard Ash Center, I explore current and future uses of AI in government delivery of citizen services and offer strategies for governments as they consider implementing AI.

Citizens want a more digital government, with Accenture finding that 92 percent of US citizens report that “improved digital services would positively impact their view of government.” Outdated systems are matched with administrative burdens and backlogs. Governing magazine found that 53 percent of state and local officials surveyed had excessive paperwork burdens that impacted their ability to get work done. With citizen and employee satisfaction with government leaving much to be desired, AI may be one way to bridge the gap while improving citizen engagement and service delivery.

AI is not new to government; while its application has been most prevalent in defense and intelligence, it has also been used administratively, including at the US Postal Service dating back to the 1990s. Given recent advancements, AI is an area of opportunity that government agencies can actively anticipate and plan for when upgrading their legacy systems.

Across the globe, governments are realizing this opportunity and now experimenting with use cases for AI in citizen services to reduce administrative burdens, help resolve resource allocation problems, and take on significantly complex tasks. These use cases typically fall into five categories of citizen inquiries and information: answering questions, filling out and searching documents, routing requests, translation, and drafting documents.

For example, the Mexican government piloted an initiative to use algorithms to classify citizen petitions and route them to the correct office. Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade, and Industry is piloting a system to help parliament member offices respond to citizen inquiries by drafting answers using AI. And one state government in the US is using AI to help citizens search documents on over 1 million pages, while saving tens of thousands of dollars.

AI only works in many of these scenarios if it is constantly learning. AI applications that aim to simply replace interactive voice response systems on customer service calls, or automate basic computer tasks, will not be as transformational as applications that learn and improve over time. AI will also have more impact if it is truly reducing administrative burdens and augmenting human experience, as opposed to replacing workers. These applications of AI could potentially deliver citizen services more efficiently while increasing citizen satisfaction and engagement and reducing costs — Deloitte estimates that automation of federal government employee tasks could save between $3.3 billion and $41.1 billion.

Despite the clear opportunities, AI will not solve systemic problems in government, and could potentially exacerbate issues around service delivery, privacy, and ethics if not implemented thoughtfully and strategically. Agencies interested in implementing AI can learn from previous government transformation efforts, as well as private-sector implementation of AI. Government offices should consider these six strategies for applying AI to their work: make AI a part of a goals-based, citizen-centric program; get citizen input; build upon existing resources; be data-prepared and tread carefully with privacy; mitigate ethical risks and avoid AI decision making; and, augment employees, do not replace them.

AI should not be implemented in government just because it is a new, exciting technology, but as one tool in a big toolkit to solve a given problem. The question should not be “how will we use AI to solve a problem,” but “what problem are we trying to solve, why, and how will we solve it?” If AI is the best means to achieve that goal, then it can be applied as one touchpoint in a citizen’s journey. One place to start would be integrating AI into existing platforms, like 311 and SeeClickFix, where there is data and engagement.

Though many government offices are still trying to achieve more basic modern operating standards, there is benefit in preparing for the inevitable future, and making technology investments to keep pace with trends in how citizens engage with service providers. While it’s not a solution to government’s problems, AI has the potential to have a great impact on the way citizens experience and interact with their government.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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