Column

AI for the people

How artificial intelligence can help government deliver better, more responsive services

In these difficult times, government is being asked to do more with less. Citizen demand for services continues to rise, while IT and public services budgets struggle to keep up.

Federal, state, and local government agencies are being asked to invest heavily in digital transformation to improve the services they deliver to citizens and employees. While the federal government spent $88 billion on IT in 2020, more investments are needed to address siloed data and systems, disconnected workflows, clunky legacy infrastructure, and manual processing.

You know exactly what that feels like if you’ve ever tried to enroll in a government program online, or even just find information on an agency website. Knowledge is scattered across multiple sites and landing pages that are often confusing to navigate. Departmental systems rarely communicate with one another, requiring you to enter the same personal information as you move between agencies. On the back end, processing and approvals are often handled manually, via emails, phone calls, and paper forms.

Unstructured workflows like these mean long delays for citizens trying to access vital services like unemployment insurance, nutritional assistance, and Social Security benefits, not to mention healthcare services from Medicaid, Medicare, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s unacceptable at any time but especially so during an economic and public-health crisis, with millions of Americans out of work and in need of help from their government.

Enter AI, with guardrails

Artificial intelligence technologies can help solve these problems, if implemented with proper guardrails that maintain transparency, eliminate bias, and respect the civil rights and liberties of all Americans. By reducing manual work and accelerating service delivery, AI promises to deliver better experiences for citizens and increase public-sector employee productivity, making better use of our tax dollars.

AI is an umbrella term that covers a range of software technologies, including machine learning, intelligent automation, content understanding, and predictive analytics. These systems learn from data and improve over time. Properly implemented, AI can drive better, smarter experiences for citizens and government employees—quickly and at vast scale.

I’m the chief AI officer at ServiceNow, a technology company that provides cloud-based, AI-powered workflow solutions to thousands of companies and government agencies around the world. In our work for the public sector, we focus on enabling AI use cases that can benefit citizens, with proper checks and governance in place.

I’m encouraged by the federal government’s efforts to create a national AI strategy. A coordinated national approach to AI will allow us to leverage its power so that federal agencies deliver services to the American people effectively while fostering trust in these technologies.

The emerging strategy sets out common principles and guidelines for the design, development, acquisition, and use of AI. These include workforce development, national security, R&D, and ethical use of AI. We couldn’t agree more.

Better, smarter, faster

Here’s an example of how AI and digital workflows can improve the citizen experience of government. Delaware’s Department of Labor is responsible for the employment-related needs of 400,000 Delaware workers and 20,000 businesses. The pandemic’s economic fallout has caused unemployment figures to skyrocket, resulting in a deluge of benefit claims.

Before COVID-19, the department received 452 claims a week on average; during the first month of the pandemic, it received more than 64,000.

Delaware’s labor department needed a solution that would help it to cope with this great need for government services. With the support of our partner, GlideFast Consulting, the agency implemented a series of automated customer service and knowledge management workflows from ServiceNow. It also adopted ServiceNow Virtual Agent, an AI-powered chatbot interface that allows state residents to request information and file claims using ordinary language.

Over the initial six-week period, the Now Platform processed more than 475,000 interactions with Virtual Agent and more than 150,000 claimant cases. Over 48,000 cases were resolved through our customer service management solution, with more than 8,000 live chat conversations. From March to August, the department paid more than $741 million in benefits.

In recent years, ServiceNow has implemented digital workflows for numerous federal, state, and local agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the State Department, the U.S. Senate, and the Tennessee Department of Human Services. In all cases, we seek to ensure the highest level of service delivery, protect citizen data, improve citizen and employee experiences, and reduce costs without compromising service quality.

Of course, no one company, agency, or government policy can ensure public-sector AI is implemented in a way that maximizes and eliminates the risks. In the future, the use cases for AI in government will be limited only by our laws, our ethical principles, and our imagination. We look forward to working with policy makers, the tech community, and our partners in the civil rights and civil liberties ecosystem to deliver intelligent, ethically designed software experiences that help citizens get the vital services they need from government.