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Meaningful consultation with conversational AI

By Chris Upton, Business Director Local Government, and Matthew Ensor, Business director Community Engagement, Beca.

Our personal sense of place and belonging can be deeply entrenched and connected to the spaces and places we inhabit, and the communities we belong to.

Local Government decisions can have significant and unexpected effects on these environments and on how communities interact, which in turn can profoundly impact individuals’ feelings of inclusion and connection. Good decision-making throughout any change process requires robust insight into what people think and feel, especially those directly or potentially affected by proposals.

Traditional consultation processes in the local government sphere have often found it difficult to reach the silent majority. There is an inherent difficulty in engaging with diverse, varied and evolving communities and demographics, using conventional means that haven’t changed in years or decades.

Common barriers to engagement include language and where people who are not confident in English are often underrepresented in consultation responses; timeliness when consultations are typically restricted to a specific topic and timeframe, limiting in-depth engagement and understanding; and cconvenience where deliberate effort and patience is often required to engage with current consultation channels – with young people in particular often not attracted to traditional survey methods.

Consultation has moved online in recent years, making use of online surveys and web-based tools. However, these tools have up until now been limited in their ability to meaningfully engage in a scalable, personalised way.

Traditional surveys can feel like a barrage of deterministic questions, forcing people to follow a prescribed path rather than speak about the things that truly matter to them, in a natural and reflexive way.

Advent of artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI), and specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP), now has the potential to revolutionise how local governments connect, consult and engage with stakeholders, customers and communities.

NLP is an area of artificial intelligence that allows systems to understand human language – in both spoken and written form. This enables us to use AI to communicate with people, understand what they are saying, and hold a useful, meaningful conversation.

NLP AI processes people’s responses to consultation, identifying key themes, sentiment and the level of emotion on key themes or locations. Underpinned by automated processing to analyse inputs in real-time, NLP AI enables rapid turnaround of results and detailed, nuanced insight into views and concerns.

It can answer questions such as; “What issues are people most concerned about this week, what parts of the region are most concerned about it, and how is this level of sentiment trending over time?”

From chatbots to conversational agents

Traditional chatbots don’t have a good reputation as they are often not very smart or useful. However, a new class of technology known as conversational agents now uses NLP to be as engaging as possible and collect feedback and ideas through open questions and natural conversation.

This can be done through web browsers, texting, social media apps, and voice calls. Unlike a chatbot, conversational agents can have natural engagement shaped around conversation, rather than a prescribed question and response approach.

They are reflexive and contextually aware, meaning the conversation can change based on the way the customer engages, and can also be held in the language the customer feels most comfortable with.

An example of this technology in action was the Talanoa project. Luke Fitzpatrick, an intern with Beca and a Samoan speaker, created a Samoan speaking conversational agent able to consult on community issues. He worked with members of the Auckland Samoan community to use Tala and interviewed them afterwards to get feedback on the effectiveness and potential of the tool.

Many in the community had not used AI technologies before but most were confident in the potential for the use of the technology. There were complexities in the use of formal and informal Samoan language, but the research proved that the technology can overcome longstanding barriers for members of the Samoan community to take part in community consultation programmes.

Digital engagement tools such as Tala can be used as a standalone engagement solution, or in complement to existing tools and methods. The tools can be customised to meet the unique needs of the project and specific audiences, are able to be operational anytime, anywhere, and are happy to listen to whatever community issues people wish to raise.

The AI can be left on for months and even years if needed, allowing feedback on specific projects to be gathered before, during and after the project is delivered. AI also enables consultation at scale, capable of having thousands of conversations at a time with no delay in processing.

Digital engagement with greater diversity

With these new technologies, local governments can now start to reach demographics that don’t normally respond, even when they might be directly affected by proposals.

A digital engagement using NLP AI can engage users at a deeper level, easily scaling across geographies and starting with open questions to be relevant to anyone.

Building trust through engaging, meaningful dialogue with diverse and representative parts of our communities is a cornerstone element of the consultation process. For us to build a truly inclusive, connected and empowered society, we need to bring all voices to the table and democratise consultation to allow different perspectives to come to light.

Any opportunity to increase participation and engagement and enable all parts of our communities to feel a greater sense of place and belonging can only help us to move closer to this future.

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