While artificial intelligence may be the future of citizen services, a new report from Harvard cautions government to approach the technology with caution.

“Despite the clear opportunities, AI will not solve systemic problems in government, and could potentially exacerbate issues around service delivery, privacy, and ethics if not implemented thoughtfully and strategically,” writes Hila Mehr, a fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

AI has the potential to help citizens interact more effectively with government. It can be used to answer questions, fill out and search documents, route requests and streamline other routine tasks.

Analysts see potential for machine thinking. “We expect AI-based technology in the years ahead to fundamentally transform how public-sector employees get work done — eliminating some jobs, redesigning countless others, and even creating entirely new professions,” Deloitte analysts report.

To fulfill this promise, government must be highly strategic in its use of AI tools. “AI should not be implemented in government just because it is a new, exciting technology,” Mehr writes. “The question should not be ‘how will we use AI to solve a problem,’ but ‘what problem are we trying to solve, why, and how will we solve it?’”

Driven by this pragmatic orientation, government can be most effective in its AI use if it follows certain other guidelines. Mehr urges for example that citizens be given input into how AI can best be used in government. “When it comes to building and deploying AI platforms, user feedback is essential both from citizens and government employee users,” she notes.

AI also should build upon existing resources. While much of the technology is new, AI still can leverage citizen engagement platforms that already work in government, tools like 311 and SeeClickFix.

Government must be selective about the data AI touches, and thoughtful about issues around privacy. Being selective helps. “There may be fewer privacy concerns if the only data being used is already provided to the government by citizens,” Mehr notes.

Despite the cautions, Mehr urges governments leaders not to hang back too long as they ponder their AI strategies. “Earlier use of AI — starting with low-risk applications in service delivery — could pave the way for citizen feedback,” she notes. If successful, “government delivery of citizen services could soon mirror the ways citizens interact with technology in their personal lives.”

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