Chatbots are nothing new for South Africans these days. Each time you visit a website, you’re likely prompted to interact with one if you have a service related query. While they have now become part and parcel of most businesses that have to interact with consumers on a daily basis, why hasn’t there been a significant uptake in the technology at a municipal or governmental level?
This is what Kyle Oosthuizen, chief operating officer at Blue Robot, ponders as he believes chatbots could be put to effective use by municipalities and government to address from fairly woeful service delivery experiences for citizens.
“Chatbots offer municipalities a way to service more people faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively. Anyone who has ever had to apply for anything from a municipal or government department such as a driver’s licence, grant or permit, would know how tedious it is to have to manually fill out forms, especially with some applications requiring duplicates,” he explains.
“Chatbots could be used to help complete these forms from the comfort of one’s home as well as to schedule an appointment should it be necessary to appear at the department in-person which could help to reduce lengthy waits in queues,” adds Oosthuizen.
With government espousing the need to embrace digital transformation and 4IR over the past two years, leveraging chatbots would surely fall into that scenario.
“If there are only 10 people manning a call centre, they can only help 10 people at a time whereas a chatbot can help thousands simultaneously,” says Oosthuizen.
“Think about load-shedding. Currently, you have to phone a number and wait in the queue just to ask a person to check on the computer what’s happening in your area. If you could go on WhatsApp and send your live location to the bot, it could tell you right away. If it’s on a computer, the system already exists, it just has to be connected to a chatbot. Using chatbots is not about replacing people but rather freeing them up to focus on more important matters,” he emphasises.
Looking at how chatbots are being effectively implemented in other parts of the world, the COO highlights government entities in the United States and Europe.
In those regions they are using the technology to enable the public to pay taxes or bills, raise and track the status of requests 24 hours a day, seven days a week, get medical advice from the chatbot based on symptoms and most importantly log complaints about service delivery like potholes and water outages.
“In South Africa, the use of chatbots in government departments is in its infancy but has started with motorists now being able to renew their car licences over WhatsApp. With there being 101.9 million mobile subscribers in South Africa – which is almost double the current population – municipalities and government should consider this and harness the power of chatbots to ease service delivery woes and take the country into the future,” concludes Oosthuizen.
Given the current state of service delivery in the country, the argument against the use of chatbots is becoming increasingly difficult to make.