By Ireen Manyuha
In an era marked by rapid technological developments, the public sector is challenged to ensure effective delivery of services and information to citizens.
The recent panel discussion hosted by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Data and Digital Communication pondered the promises and perils of artificial intelligence (AI) in public sector communication.
The discussion reflected on the many opportunities made possible by AI, such as the automation of customer service queries, addressing language diversity to redress inequalities, and bridging the digital divide.
Although AI has the potential to improve public sector communication, it is important to tread carefully in the adoption of these digital technologies due to the existing digital disparities that exist in many developing countries, such as South Africa.
The conversation stressed the importance of adopting a forward-thinking mindset in the face of an ever-changing technological landscape.
With AI arousing both interest and fear, it is imperative for public sector communication to stay abreast of the rapidly developing technological landscape to remain pertinent and effective.
The panellists emphasised that a major hurdle to adopting artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies is resistance to change. There is a need for the shifting of the paradigm from resistance to collaboration in order to navigate the ever-changing technological innovations for improved efficiency, enhanced service delivery, and increased citizen empowerment.
Artificial intelligence promises enhanced service delivery
On the service delivery front, the discussion shed light on the many promises of artificial intelligence to improve customer service and support, especially in municipalities and frontline service departments.
By leveraging artificial intelligence technology, municipalities can develop chatbots and virtual assistants to automate responses to customer queries and provide round-the-clock, 24/7 assistance to residents.
Manual handling of customer queries can be time-consuming and resource-intensive for municipalities. By implementing AI-driven automation processes, local governments can streamline their operations, allocate resources more efficiently, and focus on providing higher-value services to their residents.
Furthermore, AI can help identify patterns and trends in citizen inquiries, enabling governments to proactively address emerging issues and prioritise resources effectively.
Potential to bridge the linguistic divide
In a country as diverse as South Africa, where multiple languages coexist, effective public-sector communication becomes a vital tool for fostering access and inclusivity.
Public sector communicators have the responsibility to effectively communicate government policies, programmes, and initiatives to the public in an inclusive and transparent manner to foster public engagement.
Historically, language barriers have hindered access to information and services for marginalised groups, exacerbating societal inequalities. Artificial intelligence, with its ability to process vast amounts of data, has the potential to provide a solution to bridge this linguistic divide and redress inequalities.
AI-powered tools such as chatbots can be trained to understand and swiftly respond to queries in multiple languages, freeing up human resources to tackle more complex tasks.
Enhancing service delivery is key to improving customer satisfaction; however, it is paramount to find a balance between taking full advantage of AI’s capabilities and limits in order to establish effective government communication in this digital era.
In light of AI’s limitations, it is important to intensify fact-checking and verification mechanisms in order to ensure the accuracy of information and curb misinformation, which has proven to be a challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lack of required digital skills
One important point that came out strongly is that the current public sector communication landscape lacks the required technical skills needed to fully capitalise on the promises of artificial intelligence for effective government communication.
Government communicators are urged to stay informed about emerging trends. Through continuous learning and collaboration with academia and industry, public sector professionals can acquire the necessary skills to navigate the changing digital communication landscape. It is also imperative to ensure that the current university curriculum is modified to respond to the skills gap in the labour market.
In closing, the panellists reached a consensus that artificial intelligence is critical for inspiration and should not be seen as a threat due to its limitations. Human oversight remains important to address complex tasks that may require nuanced understanding or empathy.
Therefore, it is essential to tread cautiously in the implementation of AI technology within public sector communication to ensure accuracy and address misinformation and the digital divide.
Furthermore, the panel discussion called for the development of legislation to guide the ethical implementation of artificial intelligence in South Africa.
With an adaptive mindset, governments can seize the opportunities presented by AI and lead the way towards a more efficient, responsive, and citizen-centric public service.
* Ireen Manyuha is a Strategic Communication Masters student at the University of Johannesburg and she writes in her personal capacity.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL