When we moved to San Francisco, I thought finding a new office would be the hard part. After spending more than $400 and half a day at city hall trying to register the company with every government agency imaginable, I now know better.
Government agencies aren’t known for their user-friendly processes, and it’s not going unnoticed — 75 percent of U.S. citizens say they’re unhappy with current digital services from their government agencies.
People now expect their governments to match the ease of use they’ve come to expect from private-sector online services, and just 8 percent of federal workers believe the government runs efficiently.
Thanks to technological advances, adopting services like online chatbots won’t break the bank for governments. In fact, if the U.S. government increased public services efficiency by a single percentage point, we could save almost $1 trillion by 2025.
But chatbots aren’t just a money-saving solution. From answering business registration questions for citizens like me to streamlining procurement for city officials, chatbots can make governments more efficient and accessible in six ways:
1. Navigate Red Tape
Until recently, the City of San Francisco’s procurement team spent hours per day answering colleagues’ purchasing questions. City employees on the other end of the equation were no less frustrated, wading through bureaucratic red tape to buy everyday items.
To solve the issue, we designed PAIGE (Procurement Answers and Information Guided Experience), a limited-memory online chatbot infused with machine learning. It won’t replace anyone’s job, but it can autonomously answer about 80 percent of procurement questions, freeing up staff time for more productive pursuits.
2. Standardize Procedures and Reduce Workarounds
Finding ways around government red tape is an art form for employees. But while a workaround may make life easier for the employee, inconsistent processes sap employee time and waste taxpayer dollars. With chatbots, governments can standardize everything from procurement to election filing, providing clear walk-throughs for confused users.
PAIGE helps employees go through the proper channels rather than figure things out as they go. Now, all San Francisco’s staff members have to do if they have an IT procurement question is type it to PAIGE, which can provide whatever process details they might need.
3. Answer Frequently Asked Questions
As a business owner, I rarely have time from 9 to 5 to sit on hold with the city waiting for an answer to a simple question. But because they work around the clock, chatbots can help working people like me interact with agencies like DMVs, which are open for questions only during business hours.
U.S.-based governments aren’t the only ones that are using chatbots to make governments more accessible. Through Facebook’s chat platform, the Singaporean government’s Messenger bot can answer common questions, receive feedback for government officials, and direct users to human help.
4. Free Up Staff Time
Chatbots can’t answer everything, but they can take the easiest tasks off the hands of frontline government workers. Just ask Chip, the City of Los Angeles’ chatbot beta that fields questions from about 180 people per day and has cut emails to city officials in half.
In designing our San Francisco chatbot, we discovered that questions of city officials follow the “80/20 rule,” in which 80 percent of support time is spent answering the same questions. By tackling those, chatbots let city workers focus on more complex problems.
5. Accommodate People With Disabilities
Governments must cater to the needs of everyone. Despite this, most governments still fail to comply with the 1991 Americans With Disabilities Act in some form or another. In fact, Yeti’s home state of California released a report highlighting this very issue in 2014.
Chatbots make services more accessible to people who have difficulty interacting with agencies. People who speak different languages; have difficulty hearing, speaking, or seeing; have cognitive disabilities; or have limited mobility can all benefit from online chatbots.
6. Retrieve Tough-to-Find Information
Today, the information citizens and workers need is bound up in byzantine websites and rulebooks. Search engines look for words, not answers, so they’re not always helpful, but machine learning-infused chatbots sift through this information to deliver the answers users need.
When I spoke to San Francisco officials, many of them said they use Google to search for their own city records — and even that doesn’t always work. A context-aware chatbot, though, can provide the right documents to citizens and workers with a few simple questions.
Government agencies don’t have to be slow or inaccessible. Chatbots not only make governments more efficient, but they also save citizens the frustration of spending an entire afternoon at city hall just to fill out a few forms or ask a few questions. Chatbots are the way of the future — and it’s time governments get on board.
Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Tony has been building software since his teen years and has worked on digital projects for musical artists including Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, Britney Spears, and Linkin Park. Yeti partners with brands such as Google, Westfield, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Flextronics to develop meaningful products through collaborative design and rapid prototyping.