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Putting citizens at the center of government services with AI

As governments around the globe continue experimenting with the use of AI, and looking into ways to tap into foundational models offered by generative AI, one important question stands out: How will citizens benefit from the technology? The public sector is called just that for a reason: the public should always be the priority. Not only can AI help improve certain services people rely on every day, but it can also help bridge the gap between local government, its employees and its residents. It can do this primarily by helping automate government services offered to citizens, as well as create greater efficiencies in how agencies communicate internally and with people who rely on public services.

In the business world, AI could offer companies a competitive edge over peers slow to adopt machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and generative capabilities. AI has also begun to provide concrete use cases indicating how the technology can help improve customer service in a tangible way. Yet AI’s impact on the public sector could be even more profound. When it comes to serving government’s many different types of constituents, AI offers agencies the opportunity to analyze data thoroughly and with accuracy, with the goal of proactively offering citizens more personalized and effective services. This might include a reduction in the response time for processing claims or decreasing the red tape companies or contractors who regularly interact with governments experience.

Consider a scenario in which a person needs to find affordable housing closer to a new job. Different aspects of AI could potentially be deployed by this person’s local housing authority to automatically identify their needs, determine which services they’re eligible for, so the authority can reach out with information about those services. For example, an intelligent chatbot could even help this person find the customer application, skipping a lot of questions about the basic information citizens are normally required to provide, because the system has that information ready. In this way, AI-enhanced automation and efficiency could help enable government agencies to serve as a hub for citizens.

AI and automation at the service of citizens

Such a scenario is a lot more realistic today than it was just a few years ago, thanks to AI’s rapid maturation and growing accessibility. The technology is increasingly automating certain tasks that could allow public sector employees to focus less on repetitive, low-value tasks and more on only the most important issues. The potential result? Increased productivity and powerful contributions to society as a whole. For example, a large agency in the U.S. discovered it was spending too much time sorting through claims sent via mail, fax and online submissions. The slow manual labor was delaying the approval process, meaning beneficiaries weren’t receiving the benefits they were entitled to in a timely manner. By introducing AI a few years ago, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was able to reduce the time spent sorting the claims from 10 days to about half a day.

The VA has since established an AI Institutional Review Board (IRB) pilot to help the department review proposed AI projects. The VA’s AI IRB and a separate Oversight Committee adhere closely to the White House’s AI “Bill of Rights” blueprint, created in 2022 to shape each federal agency’s approach to using AI. The VA has as established an Artificial Intelligence Institutional Review Board and an AI Oversight Committee charged with evaluating the fairness and transparency of using AI tools within research and clinical operations to determine how they might best be used by the department and its employees. 

Other governments like the United Kingdom are forging ahead in their exploration of the opportunities and challenges of using AI, and have set up a national approach that guides their implementation of this technology.

From national to local services

Government agencies are often spurred to support new services when new laws hit the books, regardless of whether their IT systems are ready for the additional strain. Meeting these demands often requires streamlining processes and improving efficiency. This is a frequent issue in large, national organizations, as well as in smaller, regional or local ones.

A good example of this is the economic stimulus bill passed in the U.S. in 2021 to help lessen the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on citizens. The State of New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) quickly anticipated the impact of that legislation and implemented a flexible, streamlined application and adjudication process that enabled citizens to use an online portal to apply for drastically needed financial support. To help reduce anticipated call center workloads, DCA integrated a virtual assistant and NICE CXone Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology with the agency’s submission portal and call center. The self-service capability offered by IBM’s Watson Assistant removed the need to answer an average 6,200 calls per month, which translated to over 800 hours in waiting time saved.

What is next?

Beyond describing the use cases of AI in services provided by civilian agencies of governments, it’s important to also focus on maintaining the public’s trust is a key priority when it comes to the use of this technology. In IBM’s view, no discussion of responsible AI in the public sector is complete without emphasizing the importance of the ethical use of the technology throughout its lifecycle of design, development, use, and maintenance, with humans at the heart of the services delivered by government while monitoring for responsible deployment by relying on the five fundamental properties for trustworthy AI: explainability, fairness, transparency, robustness and privacy.

In terms of regulating this emerging technology, IBM is a strong advocate of precision regulation that determines how the technology is used rather than regulating the technology itself. IBM has long argued that AI systems need to be transparent and explainable. Such features will help address many of the same concerns as proposed legislation under consideration to address copyright protection, privacy and algorithmic bias.

People around the globe want to feel comfortable that their data is protected and can be used only in the ways they consent to. According to a Morning Consult study conducted on behalf of the IBM Policy Lab in 2020, nearly three in four Europeans and two-thirds of Americans surveyed support regulations such as risk assessments, which test AI for bias to prevent any discrimination in its decision making. These statistics prove building a trustworthy foundation for AI is a top priority for the entire world.

When imagining the future of government, it’s nearly guaranteed AI will play a big role in some way. Now, it’s all about identifying which issues can be solved with it and implementing it in an ethical way, prioritizing the enhancement of the delivery of citizen services. As the public sector continues to dive deeper into the world of AI and automation, there are many ways it can be used to benefit the greater good. There’s no doubt about it: When we look back on government years from now, it will be exciting to see how far the technology has come and all the people it has helped.

Learn more: What can AI and generative AI do for governments?

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