Mind the Automation Gap: Why the Human Touch is Critical in the Public Sector

By Mind the Automation Gap: Why the Human Touch is Critical in the Public Sector Cheryle Walline

Digital automation has made its way to the public sector. But there’s at least one place where human interaction is – and always will be – vital.
Mind the Automation Gap: Why the Human Touch is Critical in the Public Sector
The headlines were breathless:

“Most Government Workers Could Be replaced By Robots, New Study Finds”

“Automation Threatens Public Sector”

The same digitization that has changed how we buy products, listen to music and even catch a ride to the airport is now impacting how government agencies provide public services.

The reasons for the public sector’s increased “Uberization” are plenty. Cost, of course, is the obvious one. But with satisfaction over government programs about on par with airlines and credit card companies, the public is clamoring for more services, delivered better and faster. Digital automation allows government agencies to provide it, or so the theory goes.

Sure, some service functions can be automated in a way that’s certain to satisfy the public. Enabling people to pay bills, renew licenses or handle myriad other chores online and without human intervention are relatively easy, low-cost, high-return activities.

But for all the potential benefits automation promises, there is a critical thing that chatbots can never replace: the good, old-fashioned human touch. When things get personal, emotional and complicated, it is basic human nature to want to speak to another person.

As the E-tailing Group, a noted ecommerce consulting organization, dryly notes“While automation can be expedient, the resulting impersonal tone and risk of poor information are formidable.”

I’ll put it another way: For all their ever-increasing smarts, machines will always be machines. And, unlike humans, machines aren’t good at providing personalized service.

There are plenty of reasons why eliminating the human touch from serving the public is pure folly; here are just three:

Reason #1: Humans Solve Problems

The most important part of serving the public is resolving issues. Because humans can listen, understand, seek out information and apply accumulated knowledge and past experiences to situations, they are far better problem-solvers than any machine could ever dream of being. This becomes exponentially truer as the complexity of the issue increases.

Think about it. How many times have you been stuck at a self-service checkout that isn’t working – with no customer service agent in sight to help? The frustration is enough to make you wish you’d just chosen in the human line in the first place.

Reason #2: Humans Can Empathize

Another factor that makes people such outstanding problem-solvers is the uniquely human emotion of empathy. It’s the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes from a soothing voice that assures you they understand your problem and can fix it.

The impersonal nature of automation simply makes technology a poor choice to handle vital public service functions. The computerized voice that intones “I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your selection” isn’t sorry at all. It doesn’t have feelings and cannot empathize with the situation, no matter how much it insists it can.

Reason #3: Humans Want Choices

Finally, there is a very basic reason why public service efforts must include the human touch—the public wants choices in how they receive service. While some prefer self-service, many still want to talk to a person, even if it’s to handle a mundane task. Denying the opportunity to do so is shortsighted and certain to disappoint.

Getting Human With Coworkers, Too

The human touch isn’t important to us solely as public citizens—it can go a long way in the workforce as well.

We’re often too quick to fire off a text or email when an old-fashioned phone call may be the better tool for resolving an on-the-job issue. Talking face-to-face, over the phone or by video conferencing creates an emotional bond that will only be strengthened the more we do it – a connection that makes a difference for several reasons.

  • First, conflicts and disagreements are more easily and immediately resolved using the phone, because intent is better conveyed in person rather than by email. Talking saves time and spares us plenty of unproductive back-and-forth email exchanges.
  • Second, emails provide virtually none of the peripheral knowledge and subsequent opportunities we get from an in-person conversation. Listening allows us to gather far more information than we’d get from reading an email: What are colleagues working on now? What are their main difficulties? Which things could you possibly help with? Reading between the lines of the email can only get you so far!
  • Finally, emails make it too easy for recipients to say no. Our requests have more urgency and gravity when conveyed over the phone or in a personal meeting, making them more difficult to decline.

Sure, digitization has its time and place. But to really serve the public or work effectively with colleagues, the human touch is where it’s at.