“Hi there! My name is Muni and I am Aarhus Municipality’s chat robot. How can I help you? 🙂”
With this friendly text message, the chatbot on the Aarhus City Council’s citizen service website introduces itself. Muni, as the chatbot is called, is ready to answer queries from city dwellers who want to quickly address the local administration. And it will soon be able to do so orally, engaging in spoken dialogue with those who have a consultation for the city.
A little over a decade ago, eight Danish municipalities started the digital transformation process that brought this virtual civil servant to life. They decided to collaborate hand in hand with a common goal: improving accessibility and make it easier for their residents to access digital public services.
In recent years, the Danish public sector has undergone a significant digital transformation. From 2012, the national government started to make some digital solutions mandatory. And while this has brought efficiency and convenience to many citizens, there is a risk of leaving part of the population behind. Those who do not have access to the infrastructure or the skills needed to use these digital services are affected to a greater extent.
It was all about accessibility
“We needed to make an effort to help citizens who are not able to handle these new digital solutions”, says Torben Glock, from the Department of Culture and Citizens’ Services of Aarhus, “so we decided to create a contact centre, to help citizens who are stuck with these digital solutions.” Thus, in 2012, these eight Danish municipalities decided to launch this contact centre. According to Glock, launching this collaboration “was all about accessibility.” Since then, new municipalities have signed up to the initiative. There are now around 40 local administrations that rely on its services.
There is a tendency in the public sector to reduce the opening hours. This reduction can pose significant difficulties for certain members of the community. Imagine, for example, a person who has to take care of children or dependents. Or the owner of a local business for whom closing for a few hours means monetary losses. How can procedures be handled in these cases if the administration has very limited working hours?
In this sense, the contact centre has extended opening hours to 60 per week, which means that locals can get help even on Sundays. “That means we can help citizens much more today than we could before”, remarks Glock. The centre receives around 600,000 to 700,000 telephone calls every year.
Muni is born
To further improve accessibility and efficiency, the virtual contact centre introduced chatbot technology in 2020, in the wake of the Covid pandemic. “We are looking into a future where we have to really fight very hard to get employees to handle our welfare society, so exploring technological solutions to overcome this challenge is critical,” mentions Glock. And so Muni was born.
The chatbot operates on a similar principle as a contact centre, yet its extends round-the-clock. Dialogue designed for the chatbot is centrally created and caters to the most common queries for all 37 municipalities. Specific databases further enhance the chatbot’s local relevance. For instance, fees for services such as passport issuance may differ from one municipality to another. To address this, the chatbot is designed to provide accurate pricing information based on the user’s geographic location. As a result, users can rely on the chatbot’s ability to provide locally relevant information in a timely and efficient manner.
Giving Muni its own voice
The next step is to improve accessibility by adding voice technology to Muni’s capabilities, allowing for spoken conversations with users. However, this presents some challenges as implementing voice technology in the public sector is a relatively new undertaking. “We are aware that we need to test it and prototype first” says Glock. Nonetheless, these Danish municipalities are committed to finding innovative ways to better serve their residents.
We can help citizens much more today than we could before
The digital inclusion agenda is quite relevant in Denmark at the moment, with several national and local programmes working on it. Glock explains that “while the majority of the population, approximately 80%, is capable of using digital solutions, there is still about 20% who struggle with navigating them.” Introducing voice technology could serve as a potential solution for individuals who face accessibility challenges when accessing public services. For example, people with visual impairments, people with limited literacy skills, or other vulnerable groups such as migrants who may not master the local language, could benefit from the speech feature of the chatbot. By leveraging voice technology, Muni can provide a more inclusive and accessible service to all citizens.
Keeping a human touch
Digital technologies have undoubtedly made interactions between citizens and local governments less personal. However, the implementation of a chatbot that soon will be able to speak has provided a more human-like experience compared to navigating a website.
We needed to make an effort to help citizens who are not able to handle these new digital solutions
As stated by Glock, “a lot of citizens still want to talk to a person.” The growing demand for personal interactions is reflected in the increase in telephone communication with city councils. Municipalities acknowledge the need to provide open channels for those who need help and require personal attention. However, for the 80% of the population who can manage the digital solutions, it is necessary to provide an efficient and fast service. “This will allow us to help in the best possible way those than cannot navigate digital solutions,” mentions Glock.
A collaborative effort
What is ground-breaking is that these municipalities are working collaboratively. By joining forces, they can access advanced digital solutions that they could not afford on their own.
“If a small municipality of, let’s say, 20,000 inhabitants, should introduce this kind of technology, it would be very hard for them to buy the infrastructure and get the competencies needed to operate it,” explains Glock. But by working together, modest communities can access advanced technology for a reasonable price.
This collaborative initiative is co-funded by the participating municipalities, with each local government contributing a share of the expenses based on its size. The proportion of funding is determined by the share of the population that each community represents within the corporation. For instance, a city with a larger population will be responsible for a greater share of the expenses, while smaller municipalities will contribute a correspondingly smaller proportion. This approach ensures that the costs are allocated equitably among the participants and helps to establish a sustainable and fair partnership between the different communities involved. As more cities embrace digital transformation, solutions like these will become increasingly important.