Guest blog: The future of chatbots in local councils

30 Nov 2018 03:15 PM

Guest blog by John McMahon, Product Director at IEG4 as part of our #CounciloftheFuture campaign week.

Now is the moment we can make a leap forward. Because the technology of now is AI – artificial, or augmented, intelligence. And the key to the leap is that AI can learn, and you can be its teacher.

The AI branch I’m most excited about is the use of chatbots. Chatbots will massively increase the relevance of local councils to the average millennial. Conversational user experiences, like those in Facebook Messenger, are going to explode in a vast array of use cases and markets, because they can provide the ultimate user experience and breakdown barriers of accessibility. To provide some context, as previously stated - you can now order a taxi with Lyft or pizza from Pizza Hut without leaving the comfort of Facebook Messenger. Generation Y love this, and importantly, will come to expect it from any service.

There is clearly a difference between the hundreds of services councils offer and the variety of toppings one can order on their pizza. But councils already have the knowledge base to power a chatbot capable of answering even the most obscure of queries. This is because they know: why people call; which services are most commonly called; and how to respond to questions and/or how to direct them to services.

We believe that a chatbot needs to be an extension of an existing digital platform that plugs in to, and integrates with, existing services before it can truly be considered as “intelligent”.

A chatbot should, of course, be able to answer simple questions, but it should also be able to answer the top 20 questions per council department (even the hard ones); authenticate the customer prior to providing answers; take payments and support media i.e. photos related to a process or report.

It should also be able to recognise language nuances and pre-empt what might be asked next, learning from each interaction as it goes. And, the customer’s personal information should be integrated to allow for greater personalisation of services and predictive forecasting.

We’ve established that there are 200+ questions posed frequently to local government organisations. Using Microsoft’s Bot Framework, we have created a chatbot, or Virtual Call Agent (VCA), as Gartner calls them, that will instantly learn council’s existing FAQs for every department. Importantly, this VCA will learn any new questions that are added, and can also be taught nuances, (which makes them smarter), by service users (not IT).

For example, say you have a question “When will I be paid my benefit?”, you could add nuanced versions of this such as “When is my landlord getting their money?” or “Will my benefit money be paid soon?”. Each of the examples will return the same answer – making the AI ‘smarter’.

Technologies like Microsoft’s Bot Framework means the Virtual Call Agent can be deployed through Web Chat, Facebook Messenger, Skype and Cortana. This adds a whole suite of digital channels that

don’t require a citizen to open an internet browser – an area yet to be exploited by local authorities, but one loved by millennials.

Conversational interfaces are at a relatively embryonic stage but they will quickly evolve to be able to take council tax payments, and become the new medium for completion of simple online forms through basic questions and answers. They will also be able to provide citizens with progress updates on service requests.

Author Info:

Twitter Handle: @BigMcDigital