As our government looks towards new technologies to enhance services to South Africa’s 55 million citizens and residents, Saurabh Kumar, CEO at In212 Technologies, says Chatbots appear as a valuable tool, with the potential to transform the way people engage with government departments.
Chatbots combine the ease of mobile messaging with the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – presenting users with new ways of engaging with an organisation (to find or request information, execute transactions, update personal profiles, place requests or bookings).
For Chatbot creators, the aim is to create experiences where users ‘feel’ like they’re speaking to a highly knowledgeable human being but are in fact interacting with a sophisticated bot – and one that’s continually learning and optimising itself, based on its interactions with users.
In South Africa, with our high density of smartphones, there’s a massive untapped opportunity for local and national government to start providing certain services via chatbot platforms.
The applications range from the most basic types of engagement (like checking the balance on your housing rates account, renewing your vehicle license, or reporting faults in electrical infrastructure), to more complex interactions – like residency applications or small business registrations.
As a feedback and engagement channel, Chatbots could also give governments a far richer perspective of their constituent’s needs and priorities, helping governments and their departments to better respond to the hottest issues that frustrate individuals.
So, just what is the core challenge that Chatbots seek to resolve?
In many cases, our traditional modes of engagement between citizen and government are tedious and time-consuming (such as waiting on hold for call centre staff to become available or standing for hours in queues). These experiences become especially jarring as we enter the era of ‘instant digital gratification’, where we’re accustomed to immediate responses from most other organisations.
By digitising and exposing basic services on mobile apps or web portals, governments can improve workflows and support ticketing, as they hand-off the most mundane and repetitive tasks to digital ‘bots’. This helps to free up staff to focus on higher-value work, more complex queries and problem-solving, or more strategic issues.
Chatbots have the advantage of being limitlessly scalable (theoretically, there’s no additional cost to serving 1000 people, versus one person). When created and refined correctly, bots automatically ‘learn’ from their interactions and from the organic involvement of human actors in the process.
For example, if a bot is unable to understand a customer query and a human supervisor is required to intervene, the bot will learn from the answer that the supervisor gave to the user.
By requiring that users create digital profiles, government departments can start tracking a detailed history of the user’s interactions (with both the digital and the human workforce), building a clear picture of the user and helping to personalise the responses from the chatbot.
In fact, this digital profile should be synched with various other back-end systems as well as related government departments – such as CRM databases, or the Home Affairs and the Licensing Department databases.
The next step is to move from concepts on paper, into real life scenarios. Based on our work with government departments around the world, we can look at five key considerations when getting started on your Chatbot journey:
- Identify the public services that would benefit from Chatbots, or from increased feedback from citizens and focus on creating Chatbot interfaces for those services
- Ensure that your Chatbot is fully-integrated into back-end, legacy and core systems that will enable to bot to easily fetch information, write or reduplicate new data into databases and add activities into workflow systems
- Thoroughly address the cyber-security requirements from all possible angles. As more and more sensitive data bouncing between bots and users is stored digitally, it’s essential to have an impenetrable security posture.
- Implement a comprehensive, engaging change management approach. As with any new technology, it takes a lot to overcome initial resistance. Ensure you have a sustained focus on the benefits to the staff member, the government department and the end-user, brought to bear by compelling change management strategies
- Get started – today! Chatbots are still a somewhat nascent technology – so it can be tempting to sit on the side-lines and watch the field developing. But the best approach is to simply get started with a very basic Chatbot, in a restricted beta trial and then build it out from there, infusing ever more complex self-learning algorithms as you progress.