Assessing the risks and rewards of ChatGPT for local government

After three years of turmoil and with depleted workforces, most councils have their hands full delivering the diverse services of local government, Dr Neryl East writes.

Neryl East

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the beginning of what could arguably be the biggest shift in our collective lifetimes is only now reaching the radar of many local government leaders.

The launch late last year of free, publicly available generative AI in the form of ChatGPT, sparked a chain of events with significant implications for councils everywhere.

Many are yet to scratch the surface of the possibilities and risks posed by ChatGPT’s arrival, let alone the dizzying array of other AI platforms emerging every week.

Whether they’re recognised or not, these tools have already begun to reshape and redefine the way we communicate, automating everything from writing complex documents to creating images, music, voice, video and more.

What is it?

ChatGPT is a chatbot – a computer program that simulates conversation with humans – powered by artificial intelligence and built using Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) architecture. It’s designed to understand prompts and generate human-like responses.

ChatGPT is free and anyone can create an account to access it.

Since its public launch last November, it has already been improved. ChatGPT4, released in March, surpasses human results in bar exams at multiple US law schools. 

What else is out there?

ChatGPT – big as it is – is only the beginning of tools that can generate human-like material in response to your prompts. These are a few examples of what is already freely available: paraphrases, translates and checks for plagiarism in documents composes royalty-free music to your specifications generates videos and images from your prompts’s voice cloning software generates voice overs from text creates a fully-branded PowerPoint presentation from a document in less than a minute

In the coming months, Microsoft will integrate generative AI technology into its standard applications like Word and Excel.

What does it mean for local government?

Generative AI can take over many time-consuming tasks such as report-drafting, composing letters and emails, answering public queries, summarising data, outlining plans and crafting speeches.

The potential positives are staggering provided humans still control the quality of the finished product.

A key challenge for councils is how to harness it as a major time and resource saver, without colliding with its various risks including:

  • Inaccuracy: AI platforms like ChatGPT may generate incorrect or misleading information.
  • Data privacy and security: Generative AI relies on large sets of date to generate responses.  It’s crucial for councils to ensure personally identifiable and sensitive information is properly handled if used in conjunction with these platforms.
  • Malicious use: Generative AI is opening a new world of possibilities for cybercriminals including impersonating officials or spreading false information.
  • Bias and fairness: Generative AI models are trained on existing data. They don’t filter out inherent biases.
  • Copyright and plagiarism: Content produced by ChatGPT and other generative AI platforms may include re-used material including other people’s phrases and images.

What can local government leaders do?

With little policy leadership in this space so far, it seems most government entities are watching each other to see who produces the first guidelines for everyone to replicate.

In the meantime, there’s no doubt staff in many councils are dabbling in this new technology, raising a broader question about credibility and authenticity in local government communication.

Even without the darker possibilities posed by generative AI, there’s a risk that without appropriate human intervention, council language in AI-generated documents will swing back to the bureaucratic style of the 1990s.

Council leaders are well advised to:

  1. Arm themselves with information by learning as much as they can about these new platforms
  2. Avoid an initial impulse to ban or outlaw and consider the genuine benefits and opportunities
  3. Start conversations now that will lead to robust processes to maintain good governance and manage risk

And at this extraordinary time in history, it’s important for council leaders to remember that communication is an exchange of meanings between people. 

A bot can write a decent draft, but it’s a human touch that builds true connection.

*Dr Neryl East is convener of the Local Government Communication Professionals Network.

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