Recent events in the airline industry have highlighted the risk of putting operational processes before customers. While governments do not have customers in the traditional sense, poor delivery of public services and lack of information can have an equally negative effect. Traditional contact services, such as 311 services in the US, are evolving and becoming more complex with the rise of digital channels. An increasing number of cities are turning to automation and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to enhance citizen-facing contact services to improve citizen experiences and overall citizen satisfaction.
When citizens want to know or report something, they are increasingly turning to automated services, either via mobile apps or websites. Yet for more complicated questions, citizens are still left searching for specific contact numbers to call. When they get through to an agent, the agent might not have access to the information offhand or know where to look, leading to further frustration, wasted resources, and a disjointed experience for the citizen. The result is that managers of citizen contact services are being pushed to integrate more and more complex contact channels to produce a standardized experience.
However, systems have grown organically from point solutions built to address specific needs. Integrating services is proving to be a key challenge for cities, and an increasing number of cities are looking at how automation and AI tools can help address these challenges. The City of Surrey in British Columbia, Canada, was an early adopter of IBM Watson and has worked with IBM to integrate Watson with the city's 311 services as part of its "MySurrey" app. Billed as a "Siri for Cities," MySurrey integrates a mobile app for 311 services with cognitive computing to answer citizens' questions. Cities in the US have followed: New York is working with IBM to replace its existing 311 services, while the city of Denver is working with Salesforce to combine its 311 services with Salesforce's Einstein tools for intelligent workflow and automation to reduce manual processes and control costs.
There are several benefits to be had from the adoption of automation and AI across citizen-facing services: these systems continuously learn and can adapt their responses, unlike processes based on rigid rules, and automation can reduce costs and improve the productivity of contact center staff and identify patterns and improvements to processes that might not have been surfaced without the merger of information to inform the tools.
Cities should not forget that these services will bring additional layers of complexity that will need to be factored into maintenance and updates to front-end services. Implementing these tools should be done in consultation with citizens as there are likely to be groups that will not want to access services this way. Also, increasing the range of languages supported will be important for large multicultural cities. The ability to divine insight from the interactions requires different approaches to managing and exploring the vast amount of complex data generated between citizens and city-level services; not all cities have the resources to fully mine the data produced from these interactions, but opening data up to citizens and third parties can help overcome this challenge.
Cities will also need to avoid adopting a robotic approach to citizen interactions. Instead, they must think creatively to make the most of the opportunities to improve citizens' satisfaction and experiences with public services presented by automation and AI tools.
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