Defying Government Speak

County’s new communications software system is touted as being user friendly and cost-efficient.

Artificial intelligence is coming to Kitsap County’s governmental offices, but don’t expect R2D2.
The Kitsap County Board of Commissioners on Monday approved spending $145,000 for a new computerized communications system designed to help citizens bypass “government speak,” said Bud Harris, the county’s director of communications in a commissioners’ workstudy meeting last week. In the long run, the system, made by Microsoft, will not only save the county money, but will help local residents do business with county offices more efficiently, he said.

The system, called Citizen Resource Management Contact Center 311, is based on a customer service business model adapted to government entities. It’s already being used in large cities like New York, but Kitsap County will be one of the first smaller governments to use it.
Eighty percent of public inquiries that now come to the county are routine requests or repetitive questions that could easily be managed by a computer or an attendant with access to a bank of artificial intelligence, said Harris. By routing the public through this first line of screening, more highly paid employees can focus on running their departments, thus saving the county money while getting problems solved more quickly.
“I totally believe in what this can do for local government,” said Harris.
Harris said, for those with just a little computer savvy, the computerized system will be much more user friendly than the current system, and certainly better than taking a stab at county listings in the phone book.
“Half of us in the county still don’t know what some of those are,” Harris said. “It’s a whole different language.”
The system is modeled after customer resource management systems used by many large companies to route questions, orders and complaints. It applies to Web sites, e-mail and phone systems, but Kitsap County will start out using CRM 311 with its Web site and e-mail system only.
For now, county residents won’t be talking to honey-voiced computerized phone attendants proffering a list of options. Harris said he wants to take some time to study artificial intelligence phone systems in other governments before investing in that aspect of CRM 311, which would cost an additional $50,000.
The first departments to get the system will be Community Development and Public Works.
In a scenario described by a promotional film shown at Monday’s meeting, a woman, “Mary,” logs on to a fictitious county Web site to ask a question. She types in the search field “septic” and gets a list of frequently asked questions, one of which is what she was looking for. She also logs a request to have a pothole filled. An attendant, screening e-mails uses the system to map the pothole, link her request to others for the same pothole and routes it to the right employee in the right department. The system automatically replies to Mary when the request has been fulfilled.
CRM 311 also has analytical tools to help county officials track trends and identify issues that need attention.
The Web site and e-mail aspects of the CRM 311 system are expected to be in place by fall.

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