Digital Public Services and Conversational AI as Way to Reach Them

The huge wave of digitization created a paradigm shift for not only for the companies and private sector; as the customers expect the same level of experience in all spheres of life, the public sector is also highly affected by it. Governments and public service providers, all over the globe aim to digitize their services, their interaction with the citizen and their internal processes. They have their own digitalization agendas and roadmaps to make the citizens lives easier, to save time and to ensure efficiency. However, of course, the citizens across the globe do not benefit from this wave at equal levels.

Estonia: “The most advanced digital society in the World” by Wired

Some countries are really well-known for their digitization efforts and the consequences they had in terms of providing digital public services and implementing digital internal processes. One of these countries is Estonia who created the term “e-governance” and prioritized digitalization as a strategic choice, also named as “the most advanced digital society in the World” by Wired. Estonia is in the ninth position in EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index 2018,  where Denmark, Sweden and Finland are the top-3 countries. Within the Estonia’s strategic framework, the citizens can receive 99% of the public services as e-services. For most of the services it is not required to go to the specific agency.

It is a long history for Estonia as she has invested to build an e-government since the mid-90s. One of the most noteworthy initiatives of their e-government is “e-residency” that gives anyone living anywhere in the world the ability to receive a government-issued digital ID and full access to Estonia’s public e-services.

Two Pillars of e-government infrastructure: X-Road & The Digital ID

The two pillars of e-government infrastructure in Estonia have been introduced in 2001. The first is the data infrastructure “X-Road” that is a platform for existing decentralised databases and a data exchange layer. Public and private sector actors use this exchange layer and it provides secure interoperability for data exchanges and identification of trusted actors in the digital service delivery. The second pillar is “The Digital ID” which makes it possible for citizens to be identified digitally and to use digital signatures. So thanks to these two initiatives, in Estonia it is possible to digitally sign any contract, access any public service, such as ordering prescriptions, filing taxes and even voting.

The Estonian government claims that this e-government initiative has led to annual savings of about 2% of GDP and more than 800 years in working time. Today, 99% of the public services are available online 24/7, 30% of Estonians use i-voting.

The power of Conversational AI to ensure citizens’ easy access to public service

Another noteworthy country that has an ongoing digital transformation of public services is the UK. The UK has already made good progress and the UN has recognised her as the world leader in digital government in 2016, however, it has dropped to 4th level in 2018 (UN e-Government Survey). According to EU’s Digital Economy and Society Index 2018, the UK is in the seventh position. The government aims to have one of the most digitally skilled populations of civil servants in the world. Also, they take into consideration the importance of the collaboration with business, academia and the social sector to accelerate digital innovation in the government. The UK government launched 3 digital products within this framework to digitize their services.

  • GOV.UK Verify is the government’s online identity verification service, launched in 2016. They aim is to ensure that 25 million people have a GOV.UK Verify account by the end of 2020
  • GOV.UK Pay makes it easy for people to pay to government securely online, reducing the time and hassle of doing business with government.
  • GOV.UK Notify makes it easier for service teams across government to keep people updated through text messages, emails or letters. People get informed about the progress of an application, if a payment has been received. By this way, the citizens do not need to call government and the amount of the budget for call centers diminishes.

These may sound similar to the initiatives that some European countries have already provided to their citizens, however a recent news about the UK Government’s technology usage for public service is much more interesting. For the past six months, a small team of experts from the Government Digital Service have been working on a trial project based on conversational AI to allow people to access information from GOV.UK without having to touch a computer keyboard. This month, the UK’s Government Digital Service announced that voice assistant users can now surface more than 12,000 pieces of information on Gov.UK, including things like;

  • What age can I retire?
  • What is the national minimum wage?
  • When is the next bank holiday?
  • How do I apply for a new passport?
  • How do I get free childcare?

And the thousands of newly searchable factoids are the work of Government Digital Service  that aims to make it easier for search and knowledge engines — including Google Assistant, Alexa, and other intelligent assistants to parse and source data from Gov.UK. The Government Digital Service created Schema.org to improve the web by adding structured markup to web pages to implement schemas for information and news articles and step-by-step guides.

As voice assistants are improving in their ability to provide accurate answers to questions, they cover more spheres, not limited to the data provided by companies but including the public services as well. According to a study by Loup Ventures last year, Google Assistant was able to answer 88% of 800 questions correctly, versus Apple’s Siri at 75%, Alexa at 73%, and Cortana at 63%. So it is obvious that there is a long way to go in terms of their coverage and inclusion of public services is very important to extend the coverage.

The head of GOV.UK, Jennifer Allum, said “We want to simplify people’s interactions with the government, making information clear and accessible to everyone. These results are promising because voice services can be a really convenient way to get information, particularly for people who find computers and phones hard to use” The GOV.UK declares that extra government services that could soon be accessed by voice include renewing car tax and finding out details about how to get married.

Conclusion

Of course Estonia and the UK are just examples of how governments digitalize public services for their citizens and there are many other countries that focus this issue with successful initiatives. We will see more interesting use cases by the governments to make their citizens’ lives easy through technology and it is not difficult to see that the future of digitalization of public services will definitely include conversational AI.