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How City Information Services Can Cut Costs and Improve Efficiency with Chatbots

Tony Scherba
October 15, 2018

Doing the most human thing in a bureaucratic system can be a challenge. My wife and I learned that when we got married: We ended up having to go back and forth to San Francisco City Hall three times, even though our wedding was out of town. It was an unnecessarily complex hassle.

A citizen-facing city hall chatbot could have helped. In fact, chatbots are already helping some major urban centers — Singapore, for example, has a chatbot hosted on Facebook Messenger that disseminates news and directs citizens to helpful resources. (It's not great at small talk, though.) A little bit closer to home, North Charleston, South Carolina, uses a chat service called Citibot to field a variety of citizen questions. If San Francisco had something like Citibot before my wife and I got married, we could have used it to iron out details and access the forms we ended up making multiple trips to sign.

And while San Francisco might be a particularly ripe place to try out AI in city government (it is Silicon Valley, after all), it isn't just tech meccas that can use chatbots to help citizens. This technology is now accessible and easy to use for cities from coast to coast and beyond.

4 Citizen-Facing Chatbots Ready to Adopt

Chatbots can streamline all sorts of city-to-citizen interactions, saving time on both ends. Let's take a look at five municipal functions that would be excellent places for most metros to deploy chatbots.

1. Permitting and Licensing

Much city busywork is wrapped up in permits and licenses. Construction requires permits. Businesses require licenses. And even though these complex procedures must be executed carefully, people botch forms routinely, and then the city then has to manually correct them, creating a messy and costly back-and-forth.

These documents are very particular, too. Applying for a sign that juts over the street? That's a specific type of permit. Do you need the same for a sign affixed to your building? That could be another type of permit. A chatbot can help by guiding citizens through the process, asking questions one at a time and getting responses independently. Cities that adopt such chatbots should program AI decision trees into them, allowing the chatbots to respond intelligently — and at a net cost savings.

2. Answering Tax Questions

Cities commonly issue tax forms that seem daunting — even my accountant has to call in to the city every year and have someone walk her through the intricacies, as the city of San Francisco has an ever-changing business tax calculation. That kind of basic question-answering takes up time and money for city staff, and the process can even result in lost tax revenue. Errors in payment might leave some tax unpaid. A better experience for taxpayers can actually result in lower costs and more revenue, becoming a critical tool for a cities burdened with runaway pension liabilities.

Imagine if citizens could query a chatbot that provided straightforward answers and streamlined the municipal tax payment process. The chatbot could also be an interface to access tax documents. People could type, "I need the business tax form 2018," and have the form immediately pulled up by a chatbot.

3. Health and Human Services

For health and human services, accessibility is critical. Yet, due to physical or cognitive disabilities and language barriers, it can often be difficult for someone to interact with a city call employee.

Chatbots can more easily accommodate communication challenges. They can be multilingual, for instance. While a human-only staff might find it hard to accommodate several languages, chatbots can switch languages easily. For people with visual impairments, screen readers can speak a chatbot's responses, and with a speech-to-text interface, those citizens could speak to the bot in return. That's good news for cities' compliance departments. One study found that 58 percent of the most widely used government websiteswere falling short of robust accessibility. Chatbots can help change that.

4. General Information Services

Obviously, a city's 311 line can benefit from the use of chatbots. Information desks are built to receive questions, and chatbots are built to answer them.

For example, after we put our company trash out the other day, somebody spread it all over the street. I had to call 311 and ask for clean-up. The entire conversation I had with a city employee could have been done with a chatbot, which could answer questions, create a case number, and give us an expected clean-up time. Better yet, I could have easily taken a picture and sent it in instead of describing the trash situation. Cities already know which questions they're frequently asked; those questions could serve as data to be fed into a chatbot, allowing the bot to quickly field issues like trash pickup.

Chatbots are a natural fit for cities. They save time for citizens, reduce complaints and mistakes, and relieve city staffers of the repetitive burden of answering the same questions over and over. The technology is here. It's merely waiting for cities willing to be early adopters.

Tony Scherba is a CEO + Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.

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