The Data Briefing: Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment the Work of Frontline Government Employees

Oct 19, 2016

You have probably read about the recent release of the White House’s report on using artificial intelligence (AI). As with previous technologies, AI holds much promise in the areas of education, commerce, criminal justice, the environment—almost all aspects of the American public’s life. AI also poses a danger if it is not properly managed and controlled. This is why the report advises that “[a]s the technology of AI continues to develop, practitioners must ensure that AI-enabled systems are governable; that they are open, transparent, and understandable; that they can work effectively with people; and that their operation will remain consistent with human values and aspirations.”

With the report, the White House also released the National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan. The strategic plan lays out seven strategies for federal research in AI. These strategies range from making “long-term investments in AI research” to “ensuring the safety and security of AI systems” to developing “shared public data sets and environments for AI training and testing.” What most interests me is the second strategy: “Develop effective methods for human-AI collaboration.” Using AI to augment the federal workforce holds great promise for revolutionizing the delivery of government service and the internal operations of federal agencies.

Back when I was in my public policy and management Ph.D. program, I was greatly influenced by the concept of street-level bureaucracy. Street-level bureaucracy is how citizens directly interact with their governments. In my first public sector job, I worked for the local office of the Kentucky state government’s public defender office. At this level, the public defenders, the prosecutors, the judges, the social workers, and the police were all street-level, or frontline, bureaucrats. These officials were directly responsible for enforcing the laws and carrying out government policies. Street-level bureaucrats have great discretion but often have crushing workloads and suffer from a lack of resources.

The research on street-level bureaucracy was published in the late 60s. In the last 40+ plus years, technological advances have helped with the issues of accountability and lack of resources. AI has the promise of helping street-level bureaucrats deal with the overwhelming workload while providing good, personalized service to citizens. There is Amelia, a chatbot used by the North London Enfield council to help citizens find local city services. Another example is North Carolina’s use of a chatbot to help state employees with IT inquiries.

As AI technologies become more sophisticated and easier to build, there is great potential to revolutionize the federal government, starting from the street-level where citizens most directly experience their government. It may be street-level government chatbots interacting with the citizens’ personal chatbots. There are some amazing possibilities in using AI to augment the work of government employees.Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Visit this blog every week to learn how data is transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about government data, please contact me via email. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.