For both vendors and buyers, navigating the complexities and red tape of the government procurement process can feel like trying to land an airplane blindfolded. There are some valid reasons why procurement is difficult, and it’s important to understand that laws are written to prevent corrupt and wasteful spending. Still, for civil servants trying to do their jobs, the lack of easy and understandable guidance is inexcusable.
In San Francisco’s Office of Contract Admission (OCA), for example, employees found themselves inundated with questions about how to buy goods and services. To make sense of the procurement process, city staffers needed easy-to-understand instructions, access to all the necessary forms, and quick responses to questions. The OCA partnered with my company to explore solutions in emerging technologies, and the idea of a chatbot dedicated to covering IT purchasing topics quickly moved to the forefront.
Building the Bot
When creating a procurement chatbot (or any chatbot, for that matter), you need to have specific end goals in mind. We had three main goals for our IT procurement chatbot, PAIGE, that was designed to streamline the procurement process for state and local governments.
First, we hoped to turn a painful and frustrating experience into one that provided clarity and consistency. Second, we hoped to standardize guidance by communicating a clear process. Finally, we wanted our chatbot to provide a significant reduction in the volume of phone calls, allowing staff members to get more work done and focus their efforts on the complex procurements that demand their attention. To accomplish our goals, we came up with the following key chatbot features:
1. The 80/20 rule
This rule dictates that a chatbot should be able to answer 80 percent of the questions received. Reaching this threshold significantly reduces the time humans have to spend answering easy questions, allowing them to focus their attention on more challenging matters. Essentially, the 80/20 rule cuts the red tape.
2. A guided walkthrough of IT purchasing
A guided walkthrough mitigates confusion and prevents common mistakes, which reduces the amount of time humans have to spend correcting those mistakes. In turn, the government saves money, and staffers spend the most time on complicated procurement issues that actually necessitate their intervention. Guided walkthroughs prioritize prevention over problem-solving.
3. A document library for forms and templates
Up-to-date guidance requires up-to-date documents, and having a chatbot provide these goes hand in hand with the guided walkthrough feature. Ensuring people have the most updated versions of forms prevents problems from occurring in the first place and eliminates the hassle of clarification requisitions.
The success of PAIGE ultimately proves that when it comes to the government procurement process, frustration doesn’t have to be the norm. Chatbots can provide an elegant solution to this vexing issue — they benefit vendors, buyers, and the staff members who enable procurements to happen successfully.
Be warned, however, that emerging tech isn’t a silver bullet. Not all chatbots are created equal, and it’s important to design a bot with your specific problem in mind. By centering design around the features that are most important to users, your bot will provide a greater ROI and see maximum use.