How AI has the potential to lead the charge on alleviating the pressure on customer services within local government

Written by Chris White, Capita Software Services’ digital solutions business unit manager

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform the way that local authority services are delivered and is set to have a huge impact on almost all organisations, including councils, over the coming years.

While it may still sound like stuff of the future to some of the public, it’s clear that local authorities don’t view this technology as a pipedream. Many are already exploring how AI could help revolutionise the way they communicate with, and provide services for, their residents.

In the private sector, chatbots are becoming ever more prevalent. For example, banking bots that allow people to report a missing bank card and order a new one, and bots to help you book a taxi, or even order a pizza. And the public sector is quickly following suit.

Crucially, chatbots can help support individuals who are digitally reluctant, and whose current preferred method of contact is still to use a council or social housing organisation contact centre. To offer a real-time and authentic feeling customer service experience, they have the ability to simulate human conversations through AI. Someone using a chatbot simply types what they want in the messenger app and the bot brings it to them, talking to them as if it were a real person.

Furthermore, sales of devices such as the Amazon Echo and Dot have more than doubled in the last 12 months and the number of Alexa apps increased five-fold in just 6 months. The public will begin therefore to expect to simply ask Alexa (or similar apps) to “Ask My Council” to respond to their enquiries while they are busy preparing a meal, looking after their children or involved in other activities preventing them from logging onto the council’s website.

With this kind of ‘Ask my Council’ voice-activated app or an online chatbot service, local authorities and housing associations can offer instant answers to individuals’ queries. The customer no longer needs to navigate to the relevant page or find the appropriate form on a website to initiate an enquiry, they can simply state their query or requirement and are guided through the process automatically. This will allow any easily resolved queries to be answered there and then, decreasing the volume of calls to customer services and pressure on support staff. Where queries are more complex and require further support, the chatbot can redirect them to customer services there and then or generate a follow-up task where out of standard operating hours.

At a time of unprecedented budgetary constraints, this type of digital transformation could be instrumental in helping authorities to meet rising pressure while at the same time fulfilling the high level of service people have come to expect from their council.

Going one step further, they could eventually be used to encourage the public to engage with their local authority and share feedback, without the hassle of having to go to a council building or attend a public meeting. What’s more, they can improve with age and learn as they go along, becoming ever more humanlike and realistic the more people use them.

As ever, there are potential risks involved for local authorities that need to be mitigated. Everyone will have heard of chatbots being corrupted on Twitter and having to be suspended for offensive tweeting. And as with any new technology, protecting the privacy and security of individuals will be a paramount concern for councils. They will also need to be wary of data handling and storage and meeting appropriate legislation. This problem is further exacerbated when using speech recognition to interact in the home, for example via Alexa, and considering ways of ensuring that the public can authenticate securely via this channel needs to be carefully considered.

But for many authorities, this technology is likely to become ever more prevalent as it evolves. Councils are starting to recognise that, if they are committed to digital transformation to better meet the needs of their customers, they should be on the frontier of recognising this rapidly evolving space and meeting the needs of the increasingly tech-savvy public whom they serve.

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