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AI and ChatGPT in Community Engagement

“The business of government is about engaging and communicating… to create good citizen experiences for people around the world.”

These words — eloquently spoken by Nathan Connors, director of product management at Granicus — set the tone for Becky Hirst’s “For the Love of Community Engagement” podcast episode. Joined also by Melissa Hagedorn, Granicus’ director of client services, these three community engagement enthusiasts launched into a lively discussion about the role of digital engagement in the 21st century, artificial intelligence (AI), and the potential of ChatGPT in the public sector.

Traditionally, governments are good at giving information, but not so good at receiving information from community members to close that feedback loop.

The pandemic gave many agencies the boost needed to move (much more aggressively) toward digital transformation, “But in many cases, units of government were looking for overly simplified, one-to-one digital mimics of in-person interactions, like a webinar that replaces a public meeting,” Mel said. “But those organisations didn’t understand the reason behind those interactions and the experiences people were having,” she continued. “There’s a lot more work and thinking that needs to take place to understand how people want to experience government in a digital space.”

COVID changed the world and we’re still putting pieces of the puzzle back together in terms of what the future will look like. The biggest takeaway — in addition to the realisation that people can adapt to change quicker than we thought — is that people are always looking for ways to be more efficient and optimise reach and impact. Digital engagement isn’t going anywhere and software like EngagementHQ has proven the validity of gathering community engagement digitally. In fact, digital public engagement will probably be the anchor for other engagement initiatives going forward. But instead of focusing on a few key issues, organisations are adopting a broader, more agnostic approach to gathering feedback that shapes the whole organisation. We’re moving away from short-term, transactional approaches — like a single survey — and moving toward studying multiple interactions — like a survey series, forums, Q&As and polls — over a larger span of time to tell a more holistic story that will help agencies gain a deeper understanding of community trends.

ChatGPT potential in the public sector

The digital engagement landscape is becoming more competitive, especially with ChatGPT and other easy-to-use machine learnings being developed. At the core, government is trying to analyse the data that’s being collected and provide insights. The technological advances in public engagement mean we can gather that insight at a scale that wasn’t possible previously. When you add a human component to that equation, equipped with empathy, integrity, and emotional intelligence, you are left with a far more well-rounded, robust engagement capability. We now have a real opportunity to have visibility into the pulse of our communities in ways that simply weren’t possible 10 years ago.

And with these emerging technologies (like ChatGPT), there are opportunities for them to support practitioners as we move forward. Old school community engagement practitioners might be panicking, thinking they will be replaced by robots and AI, but there’s actually potential for a beautiful partnership. These artificial intelligence models can essentially be trained on any topic by loading them with data collected from public engagement initiatives. Once that data is inputted, the software will have a better understanding of the needs and innerworkings of the public engagement industry, and therefore be tailored to better suit it. ChatGPT, for example, is a model that has been trained on the Internet. When Becky asked it about the future of community engagement, here’s what it had to say:

“The future of community engagement is likely to be shaped by various factors, such as technological advancements, shifting societal values and attitudes, and changes in the political and economic landscape. Some of the trends and developments that could impact the future of community engagement include the increased use of technology, greater emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion; greater transparency; and collaboration between different stakeholders.”

Not bad. It then successfully answered a few pointed questions about the IAP2 spectrum of public participation, but got a bit confused when asked about the Capire engagement triangle, which is a methodology Becky often uses in her training. There’s still some work to be done with this particular application, but the bones are there. Similar to search engines like Google, ChatGPT can pull up relevant information to support your query, but it adds to the search engine functionality by interpreting and summarising all the available information and presenting it in a conversational, narrative format; almost like an organisational assistant. Humans, however, are still obligated to act on the information provided, but there’s potential for technology like this to assist us with decision making in the future.

Artificial intelligence and the future of engagement

ChatGPT is rather broad, but for various industries, there will likely be a race to who can develop a tailored application that will be able to understand the nuances of that industry to provide assistance. “From an engagement perspective,” Becky mused, “I’m imagining the mayor of a city would be able to ask an app about late night venues in their city and learn valuable info… or other tangible questions that would help with decision making. The challenge will be with trust, because these elected members are often so hesitant to trust what’s being said in their communities. So… we’ve got a long way to go.” The issue of trust and ethics is always a hurdle we must climb as we embark on new technological frontiers. The burden will always rest at the feet of humanity to act with integrity as these solutions are developed and implemented.

As this particular technological journey progresses, it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it and how the more traditional engagement methods fit in. “It’s safe to say the survey isn’t going away.” Nathan added, “When you combine surveys with good communications and good stakeholder lists that catch people at the right time — it’s still incredibly effective. It’s all about this basic practice.” Open-ended questions are an excellent way to get to the heart of what people are thinking. And not just in a survey format. In the future, feedback in the form of voicemails could also be transcribed into text and interpreted to be added to the data pool along with all the other government touchpoints where people might leave feedback.

That’s the problem Granicus is trying to solve through our platform: Figuring out how to aggregate data from all the different places where someone might interact with government about various issues and use that data — at scale — to drive insights that help inform projects. Similarly, ChatGPT, and other AI, can be leveraged to collect and consolidate valuable customer sentiments. And because data reporting is so commonly not shared with the community, Granicus solutions help to close the feedback loop and restore the trust in government that’s been lost over the years.

Listen to the full podcast with Becky, Mel and Nathan.

About Becky Hirst

Becky Hirst is a well-respected thought leader in the field of community engagement. Beginning her career in the late nineties during the early-Blair years of social inclusion and community development, almost two-and-a-half decades ago, Becky has worked with multiple communities, on multiple topics, across two continents. Her clients include countless local and state Government agencies, as well as non-government organisations and private enterprise. Her leadership experience, working with senior executive teams, project teams, and working with boards and politicians is vast.

If you’d like to learn more about essential software for changemakers that helps to facilitate, centralise, and analyse two-way conversations between you and your community, click here.