Smart City Wedel: Chatbots in Public Administration

The city of Wedel is going digital: Jörg Amelung and David Karohl talk about the reasons for participating in a pilot project of the ITVSH to digitalize public administration with the chatbot "Govii". But how is it accepted by the citizens, for which use cases is it already useful and what is the general goal of the implementation? In this interview, you can find out what experiences the city of Wedel has had so far on its way to becoming a smart city.

Detecon: Where did the motivation come from for the city of Wedel to participate in the ITVSH pilot project in which the chatbot "Govii" is used?

J. Amelung: We have been a member of ITVSH from the very beginning. The flow of information is very good, so we are always up to date when it comes to what is happening in the area of digitization. In addition, our employees have a lot of fun trying out new things - perhaps somewhat untypical in the administration. We heard that the state capital Kiel was already using the chatbot "Govii". We then took a closer look at Govii and found the project very exciting. That's why we decided to implement Govii in our city as well, as we want to be among the pioneers in the digital field. In addition, citizen service - not only in our city - will change completely, so the use of a chatbot in administration can be very helpful.

This means that the acceptance of the chatbot on the part of the employees was immediate. How would you describe the acceptance and feedback from citizens on the user experience with the bot?

D. Karohl: One reason why we wanted to participate in this pilot project was to be able to better control further development. Currently, our chatbot is still in the learning phase. Since we are acting as a pilot, we can control to a certain extent how the chatbot will ultimately be used in the operational business. In this way, we also have an influence on the benefits for citizens.

Since the chatbot is still learning, we have not yet gained extensive experience with citizen acceptance. So far, many answers to questions posed to the chatbot are not usable. Therefore, we are currently still making many adjustments so that the sources of information to which the chatbot has access become as large as possible.

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As Head of Department, Jörg Amelung has been responsible for the strategic orientation of IT at the City of Wedel for more than 11 years and is a member of the Board of Owners of the ITVSH. The topic of digitalisation and sustainable city administration is a central concern for him.

David Karohl is Head of Internal Operations at the City of Wedel. He has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of IT, business and finance and is currently preparing the digital path of the city administration with his teams.

For which specific use cases is the bot already in use in Wedel and for which use cases is it being trained?

J. Amelung: Currently, the chatbot serves as citizen information. Previously, citizens had to click through our website to ask questions, but now they can ask the chatbot directly. For example, someone needs a new ID card and our "Govii" answers directly with the appropriate forms and links directly to the online appointment page.

We work with FrontDesk for online appointment scheduling. The system is used in three of our specialist services where there is a lot of citizen contact. Here, we only make appointments online. We started doing this a little over a year ago, during the Corona pandemic, and it's worked out great so far! Of course, this initially disrupted our work processes somewhat, but we quickly adapted them to the new systems.

The citizens are also enthusiastic and accept the new structures well. Our goal is for all these areas and the chatbot to be connected. Currently, the chatbot is still learning, but it is already delivering some good results.

When do you plan for the chatbot to be able to deliver on-target answers in a wide variety of areas? What time horizon are we talking about here?

J. Amelung: Currently, our chatbot is busy learning and our employees are continuously working on feeding "Govii" with information so that it gets better every day. To this end, we have issued a press release and asked our citizens to use the chatbot and simply ask questions so that it learns. Even if the answers so far are not always useful, this is necessary so that he can continue to learn - and that with every question. So the more questions we ask it, the faster it learns!

And how is this accepted by the citizens? Do they ask the chatbot enough questions?

D. Karohl: Of course, this is also one of the organizational hurdles. This evaluation of the quantity and quality of the questions can only be done by the developer company Teleport, which manages the bot manually. We are currently still struggling to get a list of the questions asked so that we can track which questions are asked and whether the path of the information for the bot is blocked. For this purpose, there is, among other things, the responsibility finder from the state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the bot is supposed to collect and process information.

If information is stored incorrectly in the responsibility finder, then the bot can of course not respond properly. And we will only find this out if we receive evaluations of the areas in which the bot still has difficulties. But basically, I would say that the chatbot will never be 100% ready, because it is continuously learning and developing. Of course, government agencies also have a relatively broad range of tasks, unlike a telecommunications provider, for example.

The latter has a large mass of requests to deal with, but a manageable range of tasks. We, on the other hand, have relatively fewer questions, but the entire range. It will probably be a while before the bot can handle this.

Can you already foresee that the use of Govii may go beyond the currently envisioned use case?

D. Karohl: In principle, yes. However, it has to be said that our first priority is to ensure that all important information is available to citizens at all times, regardless of the opening hours of the city hall. Because citizens naturally have questions not only from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., but also in the afternoon and evening. And this is precisely where the bot is intended to provide support.

However, as far as visions for the future are concerned, it has to be said that the possibilities are changing so much that there will probably be completely different uses for this bot in two years' time. Basically, the focus for us is on the connections to the OZG services. In the future, this may even be possible across authorities.

J. Amelung: We are currently in the process of digitizing our administration and redesigning and adapting our administrative processes with regard to the OZG. Our "Govii" will then form the interface. When filing taxes, for example, the bot can then provide the appropriate answers, make the form available and trigger the digital workflow on our side.

Are you also in exchange with the other cities as part of the pilot project?

J. Amelung: There is a regular exchange of information via the ITSVH. Here, experiences are also exchanged in regular workshops to see what can still be improved. This is a good way to compare usage in the different municipalities and learn from each other.

D. Karohl: At the start of the pilot project, for example, we worked together with the city of Pinneberg, because they would also like to use the chatbot and we could share the work together. The city of Pinneberg then took over the legal review of the contracts and we took care of data protection. We were able to extract some synergy effects here.

Are there already learnings and experiences that you would pass on to other cities?

D. Karohl: The first big realization was actually that such projects always sound very simple at first, but in the end there is a lot to manage and regulate. The planning in advance costs the most time.

It always sounds very simple when you say "We are introducing a chatbot". But all the work that has to be done in advance is not insignificant.

Overall, however, I found the project very nice for my entire team, as we also grew a lot from it as a community here. Since the implementation was of course something new for all of us, we were able to discover and learn this together.

J. Amelung: I always say that "standing still is going backwards", so I can only say that it is also important as a public authority to dare to do things, even if they are not always easy. There are many regulations that have to be complied with, and you have to convince the politicians. These are all difficulties, but nothing ventured, nothing gained - that's why I see it as my duty to always do something new.

I think this project is a lot of fun and has a lot of benefits at the same time.

That sounds very promising. Thank you for the interview and good luck with the further implementation!

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