“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” —Winston Churchill
The public sector has an unprecedented opportunity to serve citizens in ways barely imaginable even just a few years ago. In particular, government entities the world over should be exploring and honing fast-emerging digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) to dramatically improve service across multiple sectors, from social programs to a wide array of economic and business services.
The public is ready and willing. Recent Accenture research found growing citizen comfort with AI, in the U.S. and around the world. A sizable majority saw government as being as qualified as the private sector to deliver AI-enabled services. We also found that citizens crave higher levels of personalization in government services and simpler ways to share data securely. And a majority of respondents, 86 percent, agreed that digitally delivered public services are equally or more important than traditional systems.
Three areas ripe for disruption
To be sure, many citizens are largely unaware of the specifics behind AI. In fact, one-third say they’re not familiar enough with AI’s potential benefits to gauge its use in government. However, many of these citizens say they would support AI if government offered information on how the technology can improve services.
With citizens’ attitudes toward AI in mind, there are three critical functions governments can immediately enhance:
- More natural, dynamic interaction between people and technology — chatbots, virtual assistants and virtual advisers can connect people with devices and services, assist with simple tasks and offer insight and advice to help inform important decisions.
- Automation to execute routine tasks — for example, robotic process automation reduces the need for human judgement, and augmented reality offers users real-world contextual situations.
- Augmented judgment tools to make decisions outside of standard business rules — for example, a process called Next Best Action infers, interprets and provides context to help lead caseworkers through complex decision-making processes. Not to make the decision for the caseworker, but to provide deeper insights to enhance the process.
The power of ecosystems
To a large extent, government entities have an incredible amount of data to responsibly connect citizens to higher levels of service. Tax records, education transcripts, vehicle registration and licensing data and much more already reside within siloed government databases. But today, many public-sector entities are beginning to break out of their traditional confines as they strive for more efficient, personalized citizen engagement and customer satisfaction.
To connect disparate pieces of vast information and ultimately serve citizens more effectively, government entities are forming partnerships — or ecosystems — with sister agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private businesses, nonprofits and other public service and community organizations. Such ecosystems can enable government to transcend traditional boundaries, to share data and technology more easily, to speed up collaborative processes, and to close loops and prevent people from falling through cracks in support systems. For instance, an annual gathering of state, local and national health and human service officials and NGOs convened by the American Public Human Service Association and Harvard’s Leadership for a Networked World has taken root as an invaluable forum for cross-entity collaboration.
Leveraging data across ecosystems also allows organizations to “train” AI and other technology how to harness the data. The more organizations that comprise an ecosystem, the more data they will have to build out programs and continuously learn from each other. This has largely been the case in the private sector. According to our research, 44 percent of business executives across numerous industries say the chief value of being part of an ecosystem is having access to new customers and the insights those customers offer.
The insight that public agencies can reap from partnerships and transactions is arguably one of the most critical elements to drive efficiency and transform the user experience. These data sets will also elevate service ever higher and help organizations meet the needs of previously underserved citizens.
Responsibility and fairness
With any powerful tool such as AI, responsible and fair use must be a priority. Obviously, protecting citizens’ privacy is a major priority. Other considerations are also significant. As AI becomes more ubiquitous, governments — as with all organizations — should adhere to four essential principles to help ensure responsible governance:
- Design the proper framework for AI to thrive, tethered closely to an organization’s central mission, core values, ethical standards and foundation of accountability.
- Build trust into the development and deployment process, taking into account important factors such as privacy, transparency and security.
- Monitor and audit AI’s performance using key metrics with essentials such as algorithmic accountability, bias and cybersecurity in mind.
- Democratize AI education among stakeholders to lower barriers to entry for anyone the technology will affect.
Equally important to taking a responsible AI approach is ensuring fairness. For example, preventing bias based on race, gender or other factors is vital as we enter the AI age. Government organizations deploying AI should take care to measure the impact of sensitive variables on other variables. For example, there is often a correlation between profession and gender. In such cases, it’s essential to bear in mind that removing gender from the data set will have a residual effect if profession remains part of the set.
AI at work
AI and related leading-edge intelligent technologies are beginning to make a difference at every level of government, though these are early days in reimagining public services in the context of vast new digital frontiers. Taking a responsible, transparent path toward AI, public sector leaders have the potential to significantly enhance the citizen experience and improve economic and societal benefits to the constituents they serve. For government, the question is not whether to deploy AI, but how to get started, and the time is now.