Online Trends

Local government chatbots – how cities, municipalities and countries embrace automation


With the advancement of AI technologies, local government chatbots are becoming an increasingly important aspect of the chatbot market. Capable of significantly streamlining individual interactions with the authorities, chatbots have long ago spread in use beyond rudimentary customer support. They now aid government agencies in matters as diverse as disaster management and parking fine regulation.

What is a chatbot?

Chatbots are, in general terms, software communicating via a “conversational interface”. They typically take over repetitive communication tasks previously done by humans. They are divided into two types – rule-based and AI-based.

A rule-based chatbot, or a “decision tree bot”, responds to queries based on their similarity to the most common expected responses. It moves through a decision tree, responding around further common responses etc. Rule-based chatbots are generally inflexible. They’re incapable of learning from interactions and only ever capable of reacting to the most common ways of speaking/writing.  

An AI-based chatbot will learn over time. If it encounters certain kinds of previously unseen vernacular language repeatedly, for example, it’ll eventually understand them through context. This context-based approach and the ability to learn in real time are the main identifying elements of an AI-based chatbot. Because of these aspects, AI-based chatbots are much more versatile than their rule-based counterparts. Voicebots typically mix voice recognition abilities with an AI-based approach, effectively functioning as a chatbot with a phone line.

We’ve previously gone over the basics of chatbots/voicebots in another article.

Key benefits of chatbot/voicebot use

Chatbots, especially in their modern, AI-based iteration, are an incredibly versatile tool for both private enterprises and local governments. Offloading call centers and other support facilities, they enable better results with smaller teams and a tighter budget. As they can operate without human oversight, they are capable of responding to queries 24/7. Crucially, chatbots don’t get tired of answering the same question over and over. 

On the user end, chatbots allow for effective self-service, removing the need for a lot of exhausting searches and calls. In situations where conventional call and support centers might struggle with wait times, chatbots can process thousands of interactions simultaneously. Chatbots, then, eliminate wait times, allowing the user to get help and meet their needs quickly. 

Examples of local government chatbots

Use around and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic in some US counties and states

Many chatbots used by counties/states in the US were originally started with the streamlining of day-to-day operations in mind. However, dealing with locale-specific frequently asked questions often fell to the wayside in the face of a health crisis. The sheer magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of chatbots in some jurisdictions

Places such as King County, Washington needed a way to ease the burden on healthcare and testing facilities. Through adoption of chatbots in triage, local nurses cut down time spent distinguishing between COVID and non-COVID symptoms by 35%. In the aftermath (hopefully) of the pandemic, chatbot support was extended to other parts of the King County website.

In places where chatbots were already present (such as the state of Iowa) they have significantly expanded functionality lately. Iowa’s chatbots aid in the functioning of some 17 state agencies. Chatbots, along with the live chat function, have saved the state administration an estimated 1,700 work-hours in 2020 alone.

The (sometimes controversial) use by local councils in London

Before success stories, there are often more ambiguous pioneers. Enter the 2016/17 attempted launch of Amelia, a first-of-its-kind chatbot in UK’s local government.

According to a case study published by Enfield Council, their chatbot, Amelia, produced amazing results even within its trial phase. Answering “over 2,300 queries over the span of 3 months”, Amelia could identify user intent in 98% of cases. It was intended to manage most of the online experience related to Enfield Council services. With Enfield being a major borough of London, the project might’ve led to an early chatbot/voicebot boom in government. However, Amelia generated publicity in part due to its Uncanny Valley-straddling appearance, and appears to have been scrapped in Enfield. The company behind it, however, continues to offer Amelia as a versatile solution for businesses.

Amelia’s story in Enfield provides an important lesson, one that seems to have been heeded by other local governments. Narrower focus paired with a less flashy appearance generally do the job. As technology moves from the novelty phase to concrete applications, its scope starts reflecting actual needs.

This leads us to a later, more conventionally successful application of chatbots in London’s local government. With the help of a chatbot built by Futr, Newham Council has managed to reach great results within 6 months. The chatbot “answered 10,491 questions automatically, saved 84 hours in call time [and] generated £40,000 in savings”. While Newham Council’s chatbot deals with just parking permits and penalties, it excels in areas other than scope. In line with Newham’s multicultural character, it supports multiple languages. If it recognizes a problem beyond its scope, it redirects the user to a live chat with auto-translation functionality.

Following the chatbot’s success, Newham Council is looking to expand it to other departments.

Harnessing the versatility of chatbots

While already put to use in a multitude of cases, chatbots still hold plenty of untapped potential. As time goes on, chatbot technology will gain more and more trust, and take on more government responsibilities. Going beyond just finding out about your fees, chatbots could very well help you pay them. Scheduling appointments via government chatbots could also streamline services significantly.

Chatbots can lighten the burden of some very high-stakes jobs. While they’re already being used in basic triage, the possibilities are much wider. AI-based chatbots can be programmed to fit any situation where answering simple questions is required.  

Amelia might’ve been too ambitious for 2016. Today, however, creating a chatbot-based local government page seems to be within the realm of possibility. Even in the case of more complex queries, AI-based chatbots can be trained to act as a sorting device. A user can be assigned to a particular priority group or administrative department. All based on what is said to the chatbot.

Questions and services associated with bigger events organized by the municipality can be offloaded to a chatbot. Ticket sales, seat assignments, query responses – all that can be done by a chatbot.  

An unfortunate, but important potential use of chatbots is becoming apparent. With the worsening of the climate crisis and ongoing military conflicts, chatbots could become significant in spreading information about emergencies. Actually, the World Food Programme and UNICEF have already deployed chatbots in some cases tied to the war in Ukraine.

Chatbots – they’re here to stay

It is clear that chatbots aren’t just a publicity stunt for local governments, contrary to some opinions in the past. Their significance will grow with time, both for businesses and local authorities. 

Whether you represent a municipality or a store chain, it’s important to stay on top of chatbot technology. Luckily, we’re here to help you on your chatbot/voicebot journey. Book a demo of SentiOne’s Automate today, and streamline your communication as soon as possible!