NACo on Unlocking Efficiency: AI’s Potential in County Government Operations

Unlocking the power of artificial intelligence (AI) in county government promises to transform routine processes into efficient operations and even address issues of bias and fairness.

From innovative chatbots to data analysis, several counties across the nation are pioneering the use of AI to enhance services, streamline tasks, and usher in a new era of governance. There is low-hanging fruit for AI applications in county government, including using advanced chatbots, intuitive phone menu systems, improving search functionality, and record keeping and analyzing large quantities of public information. But those ideas are just the beginning.

The NACo AI committee is shooting for a moving target as members educate themselves about AI’s capability and reliability, both of which are dynamic and more likely to expand than contract. The consensus of committee members is that AI could further automate mundane county functions.

For example, Stearns County, Minn. Commissioner Tarryl Clark sees an opportunity to outsource technical compliance tasks that weigh personnel down from pursuing higher-level problem solving.

Ricky Hatch has already started using ChatGPT as Weber County, Utah’s clerk/auditor. He uses it to add to job descriptions, to streamline the processing of transactions, including processing accounts payable. But it’s never without supervision.

“It can do check runs instantaneously when that usually takes me 20 minutes, and probably catches aberrations better than I could,” he said. “It’s a good second set of eyes, but we’re not setting it loose to make decisions.”

While AI can make short work of drudgery, Hatch worries what overreliance could mean for county staff skill levels.

“I worry that we are going to rely on our AI solutions too much,” he said. “Whenever you automate any process, you run the risk of losing your comprehension of what that process is and what’s involved in it.”

But he plans to run all of his departments’ public-facing documents through ChatGPT to see if they can be expressed more clearly.

Like Weber County, King County, Wash., has already used AI in a few instances. With five or six elections per year, the county streamlined frequently asked questions using a chatbot, county Chief of Staff Shannon Smith said. The county employs an “enterprise architect” whose main focus is on machine learning and AI.

“Our focus is not super-involved data grabs and predictive machine learning, but really trying to understand how we can use it to advance interactions with residents and understand the data better,” she said.

King County’s diverse population drives the application of AI to meet their needs.

“We have a baseline of six different languages and they’re not necessarily the languages most counties need to address- Vietnamese, Hmong, Arabic,” Smith said.

The county will also apply AI to help redact personal identity information on property tax records for seniors.

“It was 4,000 hours of work — it takes AI seconds,” Smith said. “You still need human quality assurance, but we’re reducing that immediate bulk lower-level work and providing an additional layer of security and privacy to our senior citizens.”

King County is also applying AI to sort causes of death in overdoses to match CDC reporting requirements.

“The labels are very specific, and we don’t always have the right materials in those reports to map to CDC reporting, because it’s a pretty complex set of labels. That allowed us to get in front of the uptick in fentanyl overdoses,” Smith said.

Maui County, Hawaii Assessor Scott Teruya sees the analytical nature of AI to be exactly what counties need, particularly when it comes to engineering efficiencies.

“I think government workers are just stuck in their ways a lot of times,” he said. Rather than following procedures without question, a wide enough net by AI could find a better solution. “When you have been going through B to get from A to C, maybe there’s a better way,” and the human brain hasn’t comprehended it yet,” he said.

Wake County, N.C.’s Thomas said she also sees hope for using AI to take racial bias out of government processes.

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