Any North Charleston residents who took out their trash in September 2017 may have been surprised to find a poster on their bin inviting them to text a robot. By messaging “hello” to 843-806-0204, they would become the latest participants in a new form of technology used by governments across the US, Singapore, and even the small English Channel island of Jersey.
Chatbots are artificial intelligence systems designed to understand human messages and respond to their enquiries. Private companies developed chatbots to circumvent notoriously unpleasant helplines: while a customer service representative can only hold one conversation at a time, a bot can hold dozens. Now, they are finding their way into government as experiments in how to improve public services.
Governments are using chatbots to help people cut through layers of bureaucracy to find the information they need and open up new channels for public consultation. As these robots become more prevalent, we need to ask what role they’ll play in the government of the future, and what lies beyond them. Are they the next step towards digital democracy?
North Charleston’s robotic bureaucracy buster
“My dad was mayor of Charleston for around 40 years, so I know how city governments work and really appreciate all that they do. But many citizens don’t feel like government is there for them,” said Bratton Riley, the CEO of Citibot.
Riley is developing a chatbot to help bridge the gap separating local government from the people it serves. The bot he created runs via SMS: citizens send a text to the Citibot number to ask a question or report an issue, such as a pothole in the road or a faulty lampost. Users follow up with details, and the chatbot will then either provide them with a fitting answer or forward their message to the relevant department. City officials will then respond to the issue, and when the problem is fixed, report back to the individual user.
“City officials only work during the day, 8am to 5pm. Citibot works 24/7″
“It’s an opportunity to try to democratise engagement between citizen and government,” said Riley. “What’s amazing about SMS is everyone uses it, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, race, or whatever.”
“City officials only work during the day, 8am to 5pm. Citibot works 24/7. You can report any time of the day, you’re always going to get a response and an answer,” said Ryan Johnson, an official in North Charleston’s economic development department.
The chatbot can also cut through the obstacles that stand between citizens and the information they need. By texting “search”, followed by an enquiry, they are directed to a relevant website page. Singapore has a similar system, which operates via Facebook Messenger. After asking a question, the chatbot, named “Jamie”, pulls information from the relevant government department in its response.
The more the chatbots are used, the more accurate they become. The language recognition algorithms improve through the conversations they have and the varieties of language they are exposed to.
According to Johnson, citizens appreciate having a system that responds to their issues. If they include their name when submitting a query, staff are able to respond with a personalised message.
“There are two types of people that work for government: you’ve got bureaucrats who make it harder for people outside of government, and you’ve got public servants, who reach out to citizens and try to help businesses do better,” said Johnson. “Citibot falls into the public servant category.”
North Charleston paid tens of thousands of dollars for Citibot’s implementation, and continues to pay $1,000 a month for the service. The company is still working out its pricing model, however. “Regardless of what it is, it’s going to be cheaper than what you pay an employee to sit by a phone 24 hours a day,” said Johnson.
Robotic citizen engagement
Elsewhere, governments are using chatbots for public consultations on a large scale. The government of Jersey has developed a chatbot to replace the surveys that previously made up public consultations with something quicker, easier and much more effective.
“Jersey is quite a small place – we’ve got a population of about 105,000 – and in many ways, it’s pretty connected. But despite that we really struggle with getting citizens engaged with the democratic process here,” said Tom McMinigal, a policy and research officer at the government of Jersey. Turnout in many areas in the last election was below 40%.
Since June 2017, Jersey has been using a chatbot developed by apptivism, a London startup. The chatbot works via Facebook Messenger; public servants pick topics on which they want to consult the island’s citizens, set up a series of questions, then use the chatbot to solicit responses. People using the chatbot are able to see fact-checked information from a range of sources, receive instant feedback and share the chatbot with friends and colleagues.
“We’re getting really quite positive feedback from users because they’re finding that in three to four minutes, they’re able to learn about an issue, give a view, see how others are responding, and they’re able to do so on their own terms,” said Simon Day, the co-founder of apptivism.
Information is separated into bite-sized chunks, so as not to overwhelm users with a list of questions. The “conversations” are also tailored by demographics: older users will receive larger text, while versions for younger ones will feature emojis.
“A common complaint here in Jersey is, ‘Why would I do that? Nothing ever changes'”
So far the government of Jersey has used the chatbot to run three public consultations about the island’s environment, community interaction, and social security, and has scheduled another for mid-October 2017. The results have been good; 78% of users complete the chat, 68% re-engage and 50% share it with their friends.
One of the benefits of the chatbot is that users are able to see their voice being heard almost directly. Jersey’s government are now working out how to feed the findings into their policy. Results are published online, and the government posts a response. “A common complaint here in Jersey is, ‘Why would I do that? Nothing ever changes’. That’s a challenge for us as officers, to listen to what people are saying, and demonstrate that we’re doing something about it,” said McMinigal.
“Obviously we’re not going to be beholden entirely to the results of a chatbot survey, but we know it’s really important – if this is going to succeed on a long-term basis – to build in those feedback loops.”
Apptivism’s pricing depends on the requirements of a particular project, the features and the number of users. According to McMinigal, the costs are significantly lower than traditional forms of consultation. The company estimates that running the chatbot costs 25% of a conventional survey consultation, and can, in theory, reach everyone on the island.
Chatbots improve the connection between government and the people it serves. By making it easier for citizens to find the information they need to run their lives, and by opening up a faster, more targeted form of consultation, chatbots can greatly improve the influence citizens have on the way their cities and countries are run. They help make government more tactile, and sensitive to their citizens’ needs.
What chatbots aren’t is a form of digital democracy. Although they speed up the effect consultations have on policymakers, they don’t put more power in citizens’ hands.
“My thoughts on whether any of this constitutes digital democracy? Not really. I think that they’re all ways in which government is trying to make itself more porous, trying to find more data points on what people think,” said Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at the UK think tank Demos.
“Governments have done this for a very long time. They’ve always tried to engage people in consultation. I think in order for it to actually constitute digital democracy, something else needs to happen as well. The actual locus of political power – who it is that actually makes the decision – needs to shift.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Michele M.F.)