Connecting state and local government leaders
AI should be seen as a “co-pilot, not an autopilot,” said local officials at an event this week, adding that it could be crucial amidst a government workforce shortage.
More than half of local government IT executives expect artificial intelligence to bring dramatic change in the next three years according to a recent survey. But less dramatic and more immediate is AI’s potential to address local government workforce shortages.
The Public Technology Institute found that 58% of city and county lT executives expect dramatic change in how local governments operate and deliver services, with areas like cybersecurity management, data analysis and citizen engagement among the sectors expected to benefit most.
Less sexy and headline-grabbing is the role AI could play in, say, speeding up the process for assessing the litany of permits and licenses needed for buildings and development.
In a bid to support the human in the planning department who gives applications the final approval, AI could be key in making the process more efficient and freeing up that employee’s time to focus on more meaningful work, according to experts at a conference this week near Washington, D.C., hosted by Accela, a state and local government software company.
Clark County, Nevada, Chief Information Officer Bob Leek said this means thinking of AI as more like “augmented intelligence,” rather than an artificial technology that will take over the world.
With around 900,000 vacant jobs in local government, AI could be critical in helping lessen the impact of those unfilled positions.
“The aspiration would never be to replace staff,” said Nidia Logan-Robinson, deputy director at the Shelby County, Tennessee, Division of Planning and Development, during a panel discussion. “But how does this help supplement … a shortage of staff and turnover, the loss of experience with retirements. Or, how does it help us bridge that gap?”
In an interview between sessions, Leek acknowledged the “sense of fear and dread” that many people feel about AI coming to take their jobs. Leek said that as a leader he tries to acknowledge his employees’ concerns while also showing them how the technology can help. That could mean more quickly processing applications for assistance programs or finding patterns in data on juvenile justice to help caseworkers intervene earlier.
“When people react at a level of fear, you can't just tell them, ‘It's going to be better,’ we have to lead them down a path,” Leek said. “Metaphorically, I try to get on the same side of the table with them, acknowledge the fear around what might be coming, but redirect that energy in terms of what could be better.”
There is evidence that employees across sectors are intrigued by the promise of AI to help them work more efficiently. Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index earlier this year found that 68% of employees said they do not have enough time during the workday for uninterrupted focus due to meetings, the need to send emails and other pressures.
Slightly more—70%—said they would delegate as much work as possible to AI to lessen their workloads, with administrative tasks, planning their days, and summarizing meetings and action items among the most popular potential employee uses.
AI technology is already in use in most cities, and use cases are exposing the variety of ways it can assist human government workers.
One position that local governments are struggling to hire is police officer. In Hartford, Connecticut, the city has embraced AI to help law enforcement catch criminals who are on the run, including across jurisdictional borders. This is one way to aid officers on the job amid a shortage. Hartford CIO Charisse Snipes said that while residents were “skeptical,” seeing these effective uses has helped bring them around.
Another potential use that Leek is excited about is to “skip over implementing chatbots” and instead introduce the use of “digital humans” on the county website to allow for more intelligent interactions. Those digital humans would ingest all the information on the county’s website so that when someone asks it a question it can produce an answer from that website in a matter of minutes.
It is more efficient than traditional chatbots, as those need to be trained on every question that could be asked, Leek said. AI could automate the task for a worker and free them up to focus on other crucial customer service needs.
Michael Mattmiller, U.S. government affairs industry team lead at Microsoft, suggested that an AI-powered chatbot could answer municipal employees’ questions about other departments and how they operate. That chatbot could then help break down silos that exist in city governments, and even make it easier to pursue cross-departmental initiatives, he said.
Mattmiller said during a breakout session on AI that the technology should only be viewed as a “co-pilot, not an autopilot.” And he noted that despite the hype, it has existed for many years and has already impacted our lives.
“This is not a far-out technology,” he said. “This is a technology that is here today.”