Introducing the next generation of digital public servants working to make life easier for everyone
Traditionally known for being unapologetically analog, the public sector is ripe for digital disruption. With the pandemic helping to accelerate the adoption of conversational AI across all sectors, we are increasingly seeing local and national governments turn to chatbots and virtual agents as an effective channel for two-way communication with their citizens.
In the ‘2020 Center for Digital Government Surveys’ report, 39% of state officials across the US said that they acknowledged the advantages of chatbots in government use, with plans to upgrade within the next 12-18 months. While this number is indeed impressive (and expected to increase year-on-year), in the Nordic countries the application of conversational AI in the public sector has been quietly making waves for years. Local and national governments in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland are leading the way when it comes to the digitalization of customer service in the public sector, breaking down bureaucratic barriers and empowering citizens to self-service, with the goal of achieving a more connected society.
In this article, we look at some of the most exciting and innovative uses of conversational AI in the public sector and healthcare verticals.
The jewel in the crown of public sector chatbots, Kommune-Kari is the world’s first multi-city conversational AI platform designed to easily connect multiple municipalities to a single generalized hub of knowledge, customizable to fit each ones’ individual needs.
Originally launched in Sandefjord, Norway in 2017, in collaboration with boost.ai partner Sem & Stenersen Prokom, the Kommune-Kari platform is now used by more than 27 million people in 118 municipalities across the Nordics and Europe.
Each Kommune-Kari chatbot is able to answer questions and automate actions on more than 6,000 topics ranging from “When do you come to collect my garbage?” and “When is the deadline to enroll my child in kindergarten?” to “What are the opening hours of City Hall?”. This frees up municipal staff to tackle more complex customer inquiries while increasing job satisfaction from not having to constantly answer the same repetitive queries.
Impressive results throughout the Nordics
In Norway, Kommune-Kari has achieved a series of milestones, surpassing 500,000 conversations per year and reaching an all-time high of more than 1 million messages annually in 2020.
In Sweden, Denmark and Finland the platform has also seen incredible success despite being live in fewer total municipalities than in Norway. Between March 2020-21, traffic to Kommune-Kari in these three markets was recorded at:
Kommune-Kari in the fight against Covid
With the lockdowns that followed in the wake of the pandemic, a second-order effect resulted in the increasing digitalization of customer support and service to help meet the demands of customers who were unable to reach organizations in person or on the phone.
This was equally true of the public sector, with municipalities in both Norway and Finland reporting significant increases in traffic to their respective Kommune-Kari bots that had been trained to answer Covid-related questions specific to each municipality.
In Norway, we saw traffic increase by ~44% in the first month after the initial lockdown in March 2020. One year later, traffic was still up ~38% in March 2021 with Covid-related questions accounting for only 6.69% overall from the previous 12 months; a sign that citizens may have initially interacted with Kommune-Kari to find information about Coivd but, 12 months later, they were still using the platform for various other reasons.
In Finland, Covid-related traffic to Kommune-Kari accounted for 3.24% of total traffic, with the platform seeing a total increase of ~186% after the March 2020 lockdown. Traffic has continued to remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, with a steady increase of ~89% over 12 months.
Awards, an app and what’s next for Kommune-Kari
In 2019, Kommune-Kari was awarded a silver medal in the ‘Governance and Finance’ category of the Smart City Expo World Congress awards. This category represented “the most innovative and successful projects being implemented and developed in the fields of governance and finance”.
In 2021, Prokom released the official Kommune-Kari app for iOS and Android. The app allows users to chat with Kommune-Kari via another channel, making it easier than ever to find answers to questions about local legislation and receive important information and announcements via push notification. The app also supports multiple municipalities, a useful feature for users who have properties in more than one district. Initially launching in Norway, the Kommune-Kari app will be available in other markets soon.
Icelandic is consistently ranked amongst the most difficult languages in the world to master. This makes the challenge of developing a chatbot that can speak and understand Icelandic a non-trivial task. The Icelandic Student Loan fund worked in partnership with Advania to develop Lína, the first AI-powered virtual agent of its kind able to communicate fluently in Icelandic.
Powered by boost.ai’s conversational AI platform which runs on a foundation of advanced Natural Language Understanding (NLU) algorithms, Lína was developed and launched in only 4 weeks. Initially designed to ease the workload of the organization’s customer service reps during seasonal peaks by answering questions both in and outside of opening hours, Lína proved so effective that within six months, she was already being upgraded to handle more complex interactions.
These upgrades to the virtual agent’s functionality included support for user authentication so that students can access account information directly in the chat window, and the ability to check loan status, change contact information and download documents through Lína.
Today, Lína automates ~85% of total chat traffic, primarily answering questions from current and former students about loan disbursement, repayment and application status, with a more than 80% success rate.
The Finnish government needed a unique digital solution, in alignment with its Aurora national AI program, to minimize friction for foreign entrepreneurs interested in establishing new businesses.
The goal: to streamline the process of starting a new business by rethinking existing systems; making them less fragmented and more accessible via a single, user-friendly channel. To achieve this, three key agencies within the Finnish government - the Immigrations Service, the Patent & Registration Office and the Tax Administration - partnered with Accenture Finland and boost.ai in 2018 to develop a groundbreaking new implementation of conversational AI to more effectively facilitate inter-agency customer service.
Dubbed a Virtual agent Network, this innovative system was designed to connect three independent virtual agents, each powered by boost.ai’s conversational AI platform, together in a single network. Visitors to each agency’s website are able to interact with its respective virtual agent to get help with questions related to immigration, taxation or patent and business registration. If users have any questions related to topics that either of the other virtual agents can answer, boost.ai’s advanced NLU can seamlessly loop in the appropriate virtual agent (provided the user gives consent) without any disruption in the conversation.
The first of its kind in the world, the Virtual Agent Network has helped break down departmental silos and set a new standard for cross-departmental customer service within the Finnish government. Users get access to all the information they need, 24/7 and via a single, conversational interface that doesn’t require them to contact each agency multiple times.
The Virtual Agent Network also adheres to strict EU privacy and data security guidelines with no personal data actively shared across the network.
Employees working within each agency benefit from how efficiently the network allows each virtual agent to answer frequently-asked-questions related to setting up a business in Finland, freeing them up to focus on more complex cases that require genuine human support.
The Finnish tax administration, Verohallinto, developed a virtual agent on boost.ai’s conversational AI platform in 2019 in partnership with Accenture Finland. The bot, named Virtanen, is designed to answer general questions related to taxation on nearly 2,000 topics, including providing crucial info on tax cards, ranging from benefits to how-to-order, during the country’s busy tax season.
At its peak of operation in 2020, the virtual agent automated over 50,000 interactions per month with a success rate of 67%. It was calculated that, during this period, the virtual agent performed the approximate work of 14 FTE employees, without the need for the agency to onboard any additional staff.
If a customer query falls outside of the virtual agent’s scope, it is able to understand and seamlessly transfer them to a relevant human agent, incorporating additional functionality designed to enhance the overall customer experience.
Outside of tax season, the virtual agent receives around 23,000 monthly conversations, with Virtanen reporting a total of nearly 320,000 conversations in 2020 with a resolution rate of 67%.
The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration is responsible for administering many of Norway’s key social benefit programs. These include pensions, child support, unemployment benefits and employee sick leave, many of which saw a surge in demand during the height of the pandemic in March 2020.
NAV put in place a variety of measures to help alleviate the increase in service and support traffic during this period including ramping up efforts of its conversational AI-powered virtual agent, Frida. Already in place when the pandemic hit, Frida helped NAV cope with a 250% increase in inquiries related to its services.
Jørn Torbergsen, Director of NAV Contact Center, was quick to praise the virtual agent and its AI Trainer team, revealing that in just a few short weeks, Frida answered more than 270,000 inquiries from citizens concerned about their situation as it related to the pandemic.
To put this into perspective, there are approximately 850 support representatives working across NAV’s contact center, located at 15 different sites around Norway. Employees split their time between answering calls, emails and live chat, and, at times, were receiving upwards of 15,000 inquiries per day. Even with the reallocation of an additional 70 temp workers from other departments, NAV was struggling to keep up with demand.
During periods of extreme traffic, NAV reported that Friday handled incoming inquiries corresponding to the work of 220 full-time employees, with an 80% resolution rate. This allowed NAV to give citizens the answers they were looking for quickly, and without needing to significantly scale up support personnel.
Sweden was the only country in Europe to avoid imposing lockdown measures during the pandemic. This made it critical for state and local governments to be able to quickly and accurately disseminate information related to public health and safety as residents were often subjected to waiting times of up to several hours when calling the 1177 healthcare service.
Officials from the country’s Västra Götaland region recognized the inefficiencies in the current service model and that a solution would be required to manage any further increases in traffic. With timing being a critical factor, boost.ai’s user-friendly conversational AI platform was selected because of its capacity to develop and deploy advanced virtual agents in a matter of days thanks to pre-built content and deep vertical expertise.
Working closely with a team of healthcare professionals, boost.ai and implementation partner Atea were able to successfully build and launch a virtual agent in just six working days. The no-code conversation builder made it easy to update the virtual agents knowledge base as guidelines and information around the coronavirus shifted, and allowed for medical professionals, such as nurses and midwives, to take an active role in helping to update the bot.
Powered by boost.ai’s proprietary NLU, the virtual agent provided a reliable 24/7 channel for information related to the coronavirus, automating upwards of 800 conversations per day and freeing up human agents to assist residents with inquiries beyond Covid-19.
The virtual agent’s reach extended beyond just Västra Götaland, with people from all over the country chatting with the bot to update themselves on the latest guidelines and creating genuine value for all Swedish citizens.