Digital transformation

AI for barrier-free government services

July 12, 2021 - 4 minutes reading time
Article by Robert Koot

Our contact with the government is increasingly taking place online, via websites, apps and social media. It raises the question whether that contact is still sufficiently customer-friendly, húman. What do we think of our digital communication with local and central government? And can artificial intelligence give government a more human face?

Arranging your affairs with the government online: fine of course, for those who know the digital way. But not everyone is equally digitally skilled. There is also a group of approximately 2.5 million 'low literate people', Dutch citizens aged 16 and older who have difficulty with reading, writing or arithmetic. Not all of us navigate effortlessly through the information society. Contradictory as it may seem: new technology can lower the digital threshold.

And that threshold needs to be low, because everyone is entitled to accessible government services. The government is there for all of us, including people who are less able to maintain that contact digitally, either because they do not have sufficient command of the Dutch language or – for whatever reason – have difficulty finding their way in the digital age.

Many municipalities are therefore looking for ways to organize digital interaction with residents as effectively as possible. It is important that, in doing so, they consider the needs and skills of residents of all ages, with different backgrounds and varying levels of digital literacy and language proficiency.

How do citizens perceive digital contact with the government?

How do all those different Dutch people actually view the digital interaction with their municipality? Well, most people are quite positive about that. This is apparent from research carried out on behalf of marketing and communication platform Frankwatching. More than two thousand participants aged 17 or older who had at least one digital contact with their municipality in the past two years, gave their opinion: they rate this contact with an average of 7.4.

The results do show a striking difference: Dutch people with limited digital skills give a lower score than Dutch people who do have digital skills. They have less confidence in the digital channel and are less positive about their contact with the municipality.

A human tone of voice

So, there are opportunities for improvement: if municipalities make online contact easier and more accessible, they can increase the trust of less highly educated citizens with limited digital skills and ensure a more positive customer experience.

The results of Frankwatching's research already give a hint for the solution: 82% of the respondents indicate that they appreciate more sympathy, informal language and a 'human' tone of voice in digital communication with the municipality. The human dimension is sometimes missing in the web of difficult to read texts and cluttered menus. What can governments do to improve peoples’ experiences?

The government is there for all of us, also for those who are less digitally skilled

Practical accessibility: web guidelines

First of all, there are technical and practical tools that make information and services more accessible: the web guidelines, a set of best practices that contribute to the user-friendliness of websites.

By following the web guidelines, the government can ensure that its digital channels are easy to use for everyone. That includes blind and partially sighted people, deaf and hard of hearing people, and people with limited motor skills or less digital skills. This can be done, for example, by subtitling videos, paying attention to color use, and offering a magnifying glass and reading function.

All government websites must comply with these guidelines as of September 23, 2020. Since June 2021, the same requirement also applies to government mobile applications. The eServices and applications that Centric develops for municipalities also follow the web guidelines and have the Quality Mark.

An artificially intelligent assistant

But there is more that governments can do to facilitate efficient interaction for citizens. With technology that almost everyone carries in their pocket nowadays: artificial intelligence. Anyone who has a smartphone already has a versatile, 'artificially intelligent' assistant. Whether it's Siri, Cortana or Alexa: you ask and you get an answer. When asked, she will tell you what the weather will be like tomorrow, or in which year Argentina last became world soccer champion. In addition to a handy source of information, your voice assistant can also order products for you online or have a pizza delivered.

All with your voice – could it be more user-friendly? Such a virtual assistant or chatbot is also a promising new form of digital customer interaction with organizations. This technology is still little used, but thanks to the increasing quality of artificial intelligence and the increasingly extensive possibilities of speech technology, such customer-friendly services are already very close.

Municipalities will soon be able to have their residents assisted online by a virtual civil servant

Ask the virtual civil servant

Municipalities could also use a digital assistant in their services to residents. How handy would it be to simply say your question or request to the municipality out loud from behind your laptop or telephone, after which the computer will automatically sort it out for you?

The technology that makes this possible already exists. Centric also uses it and is now building speech functionality in a number of digital services for municipalities. With so-called 'conversational AI', speech technology based on artificial intelligence, municipalities will soon be able to have their residents assisted online by a virtual civil servant. Citizens can use this, for example, to report a new home address or a register birth via speech, without having to go through extensive menus or forms.

Customer-friendly like at the counter

'Talking' with this advanced digital assistant happens via natural language processing. The assistant masters multiple languages ​​and accents, and can adapt to 'context switching' within conversations. She ‘understands’ us, one could say. This way, artificial intelligence provides support that is comparable to the service that citizens are used to from their town hall. Accessible, easy, human.

New forms of digital services do not mean that town halls become obsolete. The physical counters will remain open. For those who appreciate that. For people who don't have a computer. To collect a new passport or driver's license. And for help with complex questions that cannot be easily dealt with online.

For everything else: by embracing new technology, governments can make low-literate and less digitally skilled citizens feel welcome online too.

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