Episode 22 – Citizen Services Powered by AI
Jan 06 9:00:00 am
Today, Jon Knisley (the host of hello, Human and a long-time technologist helping companies adopt and utilize emerging digital solutions) talks with Max Vicino, the director for AI, IoT, and automation at Avanade about this episode’s topic: citizen services powered by AI.
The technology’s enormous disruptive potential is not limited to the private sector. Citizen services powered by AI and machine learning help make welfare payments, speed immigration decisions, detect fraud, improve veterans’ care, and much more. Max gives us his perspective and insight on the exciting uses and future of AI for citizen services and the public sector. He dives into both the opportunities as well as the challenges that may slow the adoption of AI.
A big thanks to FortressIQ for sponsoring the program and be sure to hit the subscribe button whenever you listen to podcasts.
- The background behind Avanade and Max’s role at Avanade
- The current state of AI adoption in the public sector
- State/local organizations’ flexibility to experimenting with technology
- Opportunities for AI to impact citizen services in the next few years
- Challenges that may slow the adoption of AI
- Closing the gap and driving more applied AI programs to the public sector
- Ethics and explainable AI in the public sector
If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe and check out our series at fortressiq.com/podcast. Thanks for joining us today on hello, Human.
Full Episode Transcript:
Jon: Max Vicino, the director for AI, IoT, and automation at Avanade joins us today on the hello, Human podcast where we discuss the latest topics in artificial intelligence and how it’s being applied in the real world. I’m Jon Knisley, the host of hello, Human and a longtime technologist helping companies adopt and utilize emerging digital solutions. A big thanks to FortressIQ for sponsoring the program. Be sure to hit that subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts.
Today, we are digging into citizen services powered by AI. The technology’s enormous disruptive potential is not limited to the private sector. Citizen Services powered by AI and machine learning can help make welfare payments, speed immigration decisions, detect fraud, improve veterans’ care, and much more.
While interest is high, achieving results at scale is a challenge. A recent Microsoft study found that two-thirds of public sector organizations saw AI as a digital priority, yet only 4% have been able to scale outcomes creating a still massive opportunity for achieving transformative results. We are fortunate to have a real industry leader give us his perspective and insight on the exciting uses and future of AI for Citizen Services. Welcome to the program, Max. Thanks for joining us on hello, Human and bringing your knowledge and expertise to the program.
To get us started, can you give us a little background on Avanade for those unfamiliar with the company? I know it started as a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft years ago, but I’m sure there is much more to the story.
Max: Absolutely, Jon. I appreciate you having me on the podcast today and really looking forward to the discussion. As you mentioned, I work for a company called Avanade. They were created back in 2000 by two really industry giants—Accenture and Microsoft—with a goal to deliver innovative services and solutions to enterprises worldwide using the Microsoft platform.
Today, we provide these services across a number of industries and sectors and even have a global solution area focused on data and AI. That’s where my focus area is as well. As you said, I lead AI, IoT, and Intelligent Automation. For this discussion, I’m looking to drill into the public sector, public services, and the new and upcoming innovations in that space.
Jon: That’s great. You really get to bring world-class technology with world-class services and bring them together in a nice package. How about just a little bit of background on your path to your current role, Max?
Max: Absolutely. I’ve been in Avanade for a decent amount of time now. I started off actually as an analyst focused on development, so application development and systems engineering, and was able to move into different roles, take on different opportunities, and really find my niche in Intelligent Automation, but also in AI and IoT, which is where I focus today.
Along my journey, I’ve also been able to look across and work in different territories in a global sense as well as in Europe and now focused more on North America in the Northeast. I’ve been very fortunate to do that. Avanade has given me that platform to expand my career and to really grow.
Jon: That’s great. You’re one of those rare breeds of consultants who can actually do the work too, which I truly appreciate. If you couldn’t tell, I’m stoked about today’s conversation. I live in the DC area, and obviously, the government is a big influence locally.
As I think you’re aware, I actually spent some time not too long ago in the public sector. I supported the GSA’s RPA program, as well as the Defense Department’s joint AI center in helping to get their business process transformation mission off the ground. To help give us a baseline for our discussion today, how would you describe the current state of AI adoption in the public sector? As we’ve seen in the public sector, has the pandemic served as an accelerator for adopting AI technologies?
Max: Absolutely, Jon. I think the pandemic has accelerated the pace of AI adoption across several industries. It’s really forcing organizations to rethink the way they work, and the public sector is no different. Citizens are expecting their governments not only to provide information and services that keep them safe and healthy during a crisis like we’ve seen, but also really for them to implement flexible and longer term enhancements to build that road for recovery and resilience in the future.
Even more so, citizens around the world are demanding almost the same level of service from our governments as they see in the private sector such as greater transparency, innovative ways of approaching problems, personalized interactions, and the list goes on. I read recently a study done by Accenture that showed, I think, over 80% of people expect the same or higher quality from their digital services as they do from commercial organizations, but yet a large portion of the government officials believe the organization’s digital capabilities are behind those of the private sector, which is super interesting to see the differences there.
To your question, if I look at AI acceleration during the pandemic, what are some of the main reasons? I’d first say the influx of work. Employees we’ve seen are just burdened with manual and document-driven processes, and to be fair, are working remotely mainly, but are being overworked. There are also budget constraints in government where we’re asking them to do more with less and doing things like new and innovative solutions and services. It can be quite challenging.
Lastly, citizens are looking again to be swift, seamless, and interact with their digital public services both to use technology in their daily life and improve that experience, but also to align with the commercial organizations in order to address those challenges. We’re seeing AI being used to help solve some of those challenges and it’s being used widely. I would say, across postal, safety and justice, education services, and really much more.
Jon: Yeah, that’s great. I think you touched on the citizen experience that digital provides. I think there’s also the employee experience side of it as well. I can remember when I was doing my stint in the public sector that there was one unnamed agency. I don’t know if I can name them or not, so I’ll leave them unnamed.
The fact was, I think, they had their current employee base that was eligible for retirement. It was, I think, like 60%, 65% in the next two years. Obviously, not all those people are going to leave the day when they have that opportunity. But just having that ability on the digital side to support using this technology—their continuation of service and allowing people to do more with less—I think that plays into the adoption of this technology as well.
Max: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I think it’ll affect and it does affect the citizens, the employees, and the businesses.
Jon: I make the assumption that the bulk of activity is taking place at the federal level. I don’t want to ignore the state local level either. Are there some cases where states are using this technology in novel ways, I would guess, and in some instances, state local organizations have a bit more flexibility to experiment with technology?
Max: Yes, Jon, absolutely. We’re definitely seeing more and more activity taking place at the state and local levels. One example that I was looking into recently was in Denver, Colorado where they leveraged progressive testing and new ways of using technology to improve services not only for residents but for businesses and visitors as well as looking at data and AI to create a smart and connected city.
Some of these programs included things like connected mobility for fleet and freight management to optimize travel times, as well as connected citizens where they were looking at testing automated pedestrian detection and notification technology for safety, which would really allow the, let’s just say, the walk signs to be extended if someone needs a little bit more time to cross the street.
Again, thinking about the citizens’ safety, as well as the business in residential aspects of a smart city. I think that’s just one example, but we’ll see more and more of those rollouts soon at the local level.
Jon: Yeah, that’s a fascinating example of the local community being the incubator of innovation. What would you say are the top three opportunities for AI to impact citizen services in the next three, five, seven years?
Max: That’s a great question, Jon. I think there are many, but in a broad sense, AI adopted in the short term will really provide public service organizations the ability to improve the quality of service offered both, as we said, in employee and citizen satisfaction and experience.
If we look at three examples that have high impact and opportunity, I think the first is the ability to improve operational efficiency. Looking at things like leveraging digital workers that augment the human workforce, allowing these public organizations to do more with less, and again, leveraging these digital workers to help reduce the amount of manual and mundane tasks that are linked to things like employee churn. As well as allowing public service employees to focus on higher value work.
An example of this is something we’ve seen in postal or mail service organizations where digital workers can be used for things like automating mail classification, routing, delivery management logistics, and the list goes on.
Secondly, I would say creating a positive experience for citizens and leveraging data-driven insights and personalization. One thing we’ve seen during the pandemic being widely used is conversational AI and chatbots. They’re proven vital in terms of providing information on demand in a personalized fashion. Again, we can think of chatbots being used for COVID-related questions in Q&A, as well as unemployment services and support across the public sector. I think we’ll see more in that space.
Lastly, again, we touched on it earlier, but leveraging AI at scale with cloud and IoT to create things like smart cities, buildings, and infrastructure will be a huge opportunity area. We think of things like connected sensors, optimizing travel times, increasing safety, as well as improving overall infrastructure, not only for cities again, but for buildings and even for our individual homes would definitely be a growth area that I’m seeing.
Jon: I love the concept of smart cities. It really combines this ecosystem of technologies around AI, IoT, automation, and just information aggregation, which is so critical. For listeners of the podcast, they know I tend to take a more utopian view, but I also don’t want to ignore the challenges that technology faces. Looking at the other side of the coin, what are the big challenges that may slow the adoption of AI in the public sector over the coming years?
Max: In no particular order, I think there are really three main threats. Some of these may come to folks as a surprise, but one is data and how data is leveraged. The other is the AI ecosystem, and then also legacy culture in the public sector. Starting with data, if we take an analogy, it’s really the fuel that powers the AI engine. Not being able to unlock that data or implement clear data governance in an organization is basically like having your car run on empty.
In order to fix this, it’s key, again, to understand the data, implement clear data governance processes, not only individually, but across the enterprise, and then also look to manage, evolve, and take advantage of that data to drive AI at scale. In addition to data, there are also data and AI skills that are in high demand. So public agencies are going to have to fight against the private sector and private agencies and organizations to find highly skilled data and AI folks. That could definitely be challenging.
Looking at things like contracting, consulting, or other outlets is absolutely something that the public sector will need to do. The other piece of the puzzle here and another threat is around AI environment.
Unlike, let’s just say, the cloud landscape, which has a handful of large heavy hitters and players, AI has those as well with Microsoft and so on, but there are also tons and tons of smaller niche players. Being able to select, choose, and determine what’s the right AI provider in the platform for your organization is going to be a challenge. Understanding and learning the capabilities in that space is again, something that will potentially hinder adoption.
Lastly, as I mentioned, legacy culture. What we’ve seen in the public service and public sector has traditionally been somewhat siloed in terms of digital transformation, a little bit less agile, maybe risk-averse, which would make the adoption of AI an uphill battle. It’s something we need to look into as well.
Jon: That’s great, Max. I appreciate keeping us honest on the challenges being faced. I think that a lot of those are the same challenges being faced in the private sector as well, obviously, with the skill gap. We had a recent episode on the great resignation going on as well that companies are challenged within the talent sector.
I love the term the missing middle that often gets used to describe AI use in government. There are a number of very advanced programs on one end, and then there’s a lot of emerging prototype programs on the other end. But there’s this missing element that if we could fill that gap, we’d drive a lot more value from AI. How do we close that gap and really drive more applied AI programs in the public sector?
Max: Jon, I think, AI really can’t support a one-size-fits-all approach, whether it’s advanced or merging. I believe we can start to fill that gap by achieving the full potential, the missing middle, as you said, or what I think is the intersection of humans and machines in government by leveraging our advanced human skill sets so we can develop complex reasoning, creativity, and social emotion to train, explain, and really maintain these machines. But then on the flip side, we use intelligent tech like AI to augment, amplify, and interact with humans.
As an example of this, again, back to let’s say conversational AI and chatbots. In order to develop that platform, government departments, or organizations, it’ll require humans to train the AI systems on how to identify complexities of human communication. But once the bots are developed, that bot will then in turn be able to help the humans in the employees with picking up things like spikes in demand, unfavorable conditions, Q&A, and other things that will then be supported on the tech side of things.
In short, driving human-machine collaboration or creating that somewhat symbiotic relationship between humans and machines will just get us closer to accelerating AI programs and closer to that missing middle, as you mentioned.
Jon: Max, I’ve got one final topic to pick your brain on. Ethical AI comes up more and more in conversations these days. In your view, what’s the impact of ethics and explainable AI in the public sector? Is this an area where the public sector can be leading the private sector?
Max: Absolutely, Jon. Ethical AI, obviously, as you said, is an important topic and one we’ve seen widely in the ecosystem. In all organizations, it’s a key to drive ethical values and apply those not just at a high level, but really, in the design, development, and implementation of your AI platforms to ensure they’re being respectful of the citizens and the social responsibility.
Although it’s rare that a company would purposely use tech for, let’s just say, evil, there are a few cases of missteps and misuse in the news that we see that we need to get in front of in public services. Organizations can really do that by clearly understanding what they have today, their infrastructure, and how it’s affecting personal, societal, and even environmental systems today.
Once they understand what they have, they will then be able to build out that robust AI ethical framework, as well as a culture for really AI ethics and strategy that can be deployed across their organization based on their employee needs.
I can think of this as most employees should be educated on AI ethics, guiding principles, and even ethical risks. But the AI practitioners and developers would need more granular guidance on how they can help understand the impact of things like explainable AI models and how their teams can build internal tools and data aggregation, even testing of AI models to keep their core AI values in mind while identifying opportunities for good and accurate ethical decisions.
Again, it’s going to be at a granular level for some folks and across organizations for others and definitely something we’ll see more and more of.
Jon: That’s great insight, Max, and a great point to end on. To recap today’s conversation with Max Vicino, Avanade’s director for AI, IoT, and Automation, the societal and economic innovations driven by emerging technologies are already having a real impact in the public sector. Citizen Services from welfare payments and immigration decisions to veterans care and fraud detection are being powered by AI and machine learning. Just as we see in the private sector interest is high, but scaling programs can be a challenge.
Fortunately, we’ve got companies like Avanade bringing AI-enabled technology solutions that are delivering productivity, efficiency, and accuracy to traditionally human-centered processes.
That’s a wrap on today’s show. Thank you, Max, for joining us and FortressIQ for sponsoring. If you enjoyed it, be sure to give us that like or a five-star review on whatever platform you’re listening to. I’m Jon Knisley and this has been hello, Human.