The last major innovation which ushered in changes to how we communicate, consume media, and even elect officials, was the launch of the smartphone in 2007. Today, we are at the beginning of another revolutionary moment with Generative AI. Experts are referring to Gen AI as the fourth industrial revolution. While we are still in the early days, I have to agree. As this technology rapidly evolves, how will Gen AI affect local governments? How can we safely and responsibly wield its power? It’s important for government leaders to understand the potential impacts.
I’m going to provide some examples that are beyond the typical use cases of writing emails, summarizing content, and creating images. Gen AI is poised to transform local government to become more efficient, effective, and responsive to constituent needs. Below we’ll explore some specific ways to use it.
I’m going to assume you already have a baseline understanding of Gen AI. But if you don’t, here’s Bard explaining how it works in a metaphor.
Please consider adding your thoughts to the conversation in the comments section. It’s an important time of innovation and the more voices we have in the conversation, the better.
Moving Beyond the Obvious Use Cases
While summarizing content and drafting documents are common applications of the Gen AI we see today with Google’s Bard, OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Anthropic’s Claude, the technology’s potential extends far beyond these basic tasks. And we should expect both the capabilities and applications of AI to rapidly evolve over the next 12-24 months. Here are some areas where local governments can leverage AI today:
1. Enhance Citizen Engagement to Build Stronger Communities
Create personalized communication channels, develop interactive citizen feedback mechanisms, and analyze sentiment to better understand community needs. Gen AI provides an opportunity for citizens to have 24/7/365 access to their local government through intelligent agents that can help them get the answers they need, apply for licenses, and pay taxes. Let’s be honest, interacting with the government is not always easy, and can be frustrating. There are a lot of departments, forms and processes to follow. What if citizens had an intelligent agent guiding them through these processes? How can anonymized data be used to better understand the needs of our communities? What if government workers were assisted by Gen AI to provide better customer service? I bet engagement and sentiment would improve significantly. These things are all possible today with Gen AI.
2. Fostering Innovation and Economic Growth
Gen AI can be a catalyst for innovation and economic growth within local communities. By analyzing economic data, identifying emerging trends, and assessing potential market opportunities, Gen AI can help local governments attract new businesses, foster entrepreneurship, and build a thriving economic ecosystem. Let’s say you need to do some economic analysis for a proposed factory coming to town or a new development project. What will be the impacts on local resources such as housing, public safety, schools, roads, utilities, etc? These scenario based questions are perfect for Gen AI to assist with developing plans for how to best allocate and optimize resources to maximize outcomes. Gen AI can perform this kind of situational analysis 100x faster and with far more nuance.
3. Empower Data-Driven Decision-Making
AI tools can analyze complex datasets, gain insights into trends and patterns, and inform evidence-based policy decisions. Even small local governments possess a lot of data, making it challenging to extract meaningful insights and inform strategic decisions. Gen AI can help you explore data more thoroughly and make connections that once were hidden or too complex to find. It’s much more capable and quick to find patterns, trends, and outliers that would otherwise be lost. Think about the effort of evaluating historical data, resident feedback, policies, regulations, economic data, and more all on your own. We’re talking about a force multiplier in leveraging data for decisions with the aid of Gen AI.
4. Search, Discovery and Understanding
Local governments generate loads of paperwork, physical and digital. Gen AI supercharges search and discovery across your corpus of data. And training private LLM’s that help staff discover and build understanding about the contents of your data is a powerful use case. For example, what if someone is asking about building permits for an addition to their home and wants to understand the building codes. AI-based search and conversation experiences, once arduous tasks, can be done in hours and days vs. weeks and months.
5. Enhancing Cybersecurity
Local governments are among the top targets for cyber criminals today. Unfortunately they’ve found local governments to be a target rich environment with juicy data that’s not as secure as it should be. There have been a number of incidents of ransomware attacks against local governments. Gen AI enhances the cybersecurity posture for local governments who aren’t able to hire enough skilled workers to play security offense and defense. There are specific LLM’s trained on security data that can monitor, detect, and help workers respond to an attack. Again, another example of a “sidecar” AI approach where it’s assisting humans to be 10-100x more productive, and filling in skill gaps.
Key Takeaways for Mayors and Commissioners
We are in the early days, but there are practical applications to be deployed now. This is an exciting journey that’s evolving before our eyes. So what are the important things to get right at the onset? Let’s take a look.
Establish Clear AI Governance
Develop policies and procedures that guide the responsible and ethical use of AI within your organization. Address issues such as data privacy, bias, and model explainability. There are already great examples of this emerging from state and federal leaders, as well as technology companies. No need to completely recreate the wheel. Here are some examples:
- Federal Executive Order 2023
- NIST AI Framework
- State of Utah
- State of Pennsylvania
- State of New Jersey
- City of Boston
- City of San Jose
- Google AI Principles
- OpenAI Safety Standards
Invest in AI Education and Training
Provide opportunities for your staff to learn about AI’s capabilities and limitations. Encourage them to experiment with AI tools and share their experiences with colleagues. Be clear about what should and should not be input into consumer tools like ChatGPT and Bard. There’s a clear line between private/secure AI and consumer products.
Embrace AI for Innovation
Explore how generative AI can transform your municipality’s operations, from improving public service delivery to enhancing citizen engagement. Connect with AI experts and partners to identify and implement innovative solutions. Experiment safely. We learn from trying, failing fast, and iterating. And there are ways to do that experimentation process without compromising data privacy and security. So, local leaders should lean into this technology and get curious about it. Make it a priority to figure out how to leverage it for good.
A word of caution about AI tools
I realize this post is optimistic. That’s my intent and my own perspective. We do need to acknowledge the risks. With any technology, new and old, there are risks and trade offs to consider. I will be writing a follow up piece to address the risks associated with Gen AI, specific to local government. So check back soon.
For now though, be thinking about data custody. When you use AI, do you know where your data is going? I don’t mean to pick on one tool, but for the sake of example I’m going to. Otter.ai is a popular tool that transcribes web meetings like Zoom and Google Meet. An AI joins the call, transcribes the conversation, then summarizes it in notes. Now go take a look at Otter’s terms of service. It uses several third party processors, so you very quickly realize how your data can be spread outside of your control. That’s clearly problematic. Thankfully, enterprise systems already exist to empower organizations to deploy AI responsibly and maintain control around how data is being used, where it’s stored, and that you have true custody of it.
The pace of innovation is unprecedented. Just today Google announced Gemini 1.0, another leap forward in AI. Gemini is multimodal (text, code, images, video), capable of reasoning, and outperforms humans on many complex tasks. Continue to expect rapid advancements, but don’t miss the opportunities now.
Hopefully the examples above, while not exhaustive and only high level, show how Generative AI holds immense potential to transform local government operations, citizen engagement and experience. I believe by embracing AI responsibly, municipalities and county governments can enhance their ability to serve their communities effectively and efficiently. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with the potential of Gen AI in governments? What other use cases do you see? We need more local government leaders engaged in dialog about innovation to drive outcomes. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
AI use disclosure: I used Bard and ChatGPT to edit this post and as a creative assistant to flesh out some of my thoughts around the use cases. DALL-E was used to create the cover image with the prompt “I need cover art for a blog post titled “Generative AI: A Practical Guide for Local Government Transformation”