Stories

Citibot's AI chatbot makes local government more accessible

Citizens can text questions, log issues, or receive alerts from their city.

ChatbotsCitizen EngagementArtificial Intelligence (AI)
Project Summary
We all want citizens to engage more with their local governments. But more public input means more questions and requests to respond to. In the face of shrinking budgets and overworked employees, how does a city take on more public engagement?
Get bots to do it.
Cities across the United States are turning to bots to make it easier for people to access and communicate with government officials. We’ve seen these AI-driven programs help businesses with contracting questions, make city data more available, improve the 311 process, and more.
Some districts are developing solutions to meet their needs. Fresno built the FresGo app for people to report issues like potholes and graffiti (and then get notified when their issue is fixed). Tulsa partnered with Code for Tulsa to create a bot that reminds people to pay their court fees.
But not everyone has the ability to build a product. And they don’t need to.
Rather than starting from scratch, local officials can look to products designed specifically for bot-driven citizen-government interaction. An emerging leader in this field is Citibot, which uses AI and text messaging apps already on people’s phones to improve communication, information sharing, and requests between the people and local governments.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with the Citibot team about how their product can make it easier for citizens to get information and services from local governments.

Making local government accessible to all

Bratton Riley is no stranger to local government. His father, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. served as mayor of Charleston, SC for 40 years. This gave the younger Riley a direct line to local officials.

“If I saw a pothole, I already knew City Hall and the staff there, so I could just go in and tell them about it and it would probably get fixed a lot faster than if someone else had reported it.”
But he knew that not everyone got the insider treatment.
“I had a privilege that wasn’t available to all the other residents of Charleston — and likewise other cities.”
There must be a way, thought Riley, to make government more accessible to all citizens.
This mission led Riley to launch Citibot in 2016, who launched their first customer, the city of North Charleston in 2017. The AI-powered product has three main offerings: an AI-powered interactive text chat that lets the public ask questions, search for information or log issues; interactive text alerts, which lets the government send out information to citizens via text; and a new web chat service, which is similar to the text version but embeds in a local government’s website.
A big differentiator with Citibot is its use of text messaging. That’s a core piece of the company’s mission to be accessible to everyone, says Alexandria Cottingham, Citibot’s Director of Marketing & Communications:
“Everyone’s really excited about apps, and those have become more prominent in our digital sphere. But not every resident has the ability to access an app on their cell phone.”
She notes that the Citibot research shows that 97% of U.S. adults use text messaging on their phones.
“It makes sense to give government a tool that is available via text message.”

How Citibot works

From a citizen’s perspective, Citibot is pretty straightforward. See a pothole that needs fixing? Text it to your city’s number and it’ll get logged in the workflow. Wondering when your trash will be picked up? Text your question to the same number and you’ll get an instant response.
Or residents can opt in to their city’s alert system to receive notifications. This service has been particularly popular during the COVID-19 outbreak, as a growing number of jurisdictions have used it to communicate virus updates and regulations with the public.
On the government side, the Citibot team handles the setup — this not only includes the technical setup, but also integration with a local government’s CRM or workflow management system. If that doesn’t exist, Citibot creates one, usually with Trello because it’s free and easy to use. Says Cottingham:
“Our main goal is to make sure we can automate as much as possible to help city staff not get bogged down with 10,000 questions about trash pickup when the info is available on their website.”
Local governments are able to customize their service — for example, the city of Tukwila, WA has named their program “TukText.” Cities must also select a phone number for the text service. (While most users are in the U.S., the product works internationally, too.)
When the system’s ready to go live, Citibot helps the city or county get the word out to its citizens. The exhaustive launch packet includes everything from a press release and social media assets to an audit of the city’s website with recommended placements for the new phone number.
As for cost, it’s based on the population size of the city, town, or county. But there’s always room for discussion, and the Citibot team can customize their offering based on what the city can afford. Says Cottingham:
“We want it to be accessible, not just to the citizens, but to the cities as well.”

Finding new ways to engage citizens

While text messaging remains one of the most inclusive ways of communicating with citizens, Citibot is expanding into other channels as well.
Its new web chat solution functions the same way as its text products, and integrates into the local government’s website, using AI to help citizens navigate the information cities put online while integrating into the city’s CRM for staff on the backend. Says Riley:
“It’s no secret that government websites are very content rich — it’s because they simply have so many responsibilities to their residents and so many services.”
The web chat functionality makes that content a little easier to navigate for residents using the website.
Just as Govlaunch is working to promote the sharing of information between local governments, Citibot is streamlining the flow of information between a government and its citizens. Ultimately, this leads to a better experience with local government, and more involvement by the people it serves.
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Lindsay Pica

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