Using AI to Improve Services and Trust

Sugar Land, Texas 

Michael Goodrum, ICMA-CM, City Manager

Residents sometimes think it’s magic—they mention an issue on social media and “magically” it’s fixed. Sugar Land accomplishes this magic by using the artificial intelligence capabilities of Zencity to proactively address resident needs. This approach accomplishes what most cities strive for—building trust with residents by delivering efficient service, based on information about what residents do and don’t understand and knowledge of their overall sentiment about topics and issues.

Before implementing this approach, Sugar Land faced a guessing game about how residents feel, what they understand (or don’t), and what they’re discussing in their neighborhoods. The city had a few anecdotes to cite as “evidence,” but did not have holistic data.

To get a better handle on resident sentiment and concerns, the city contracted with Zencity to provide “social-listening” software that uses artificial intelligence to gather and analyze data from touchpoints residents have with their local government, including the city’s 311 contact center.

For example, Zencity data revealed that residents were discussing on social media what they thought was the smell of chlorine in their water. Zencity’s data made it possible for the city to quickly alert the public works department, which promptly investigated the smell at the resident’s house. The department found no chlorine in the water, but the city was able to respond proactively to a public safety concern.

Sugar Land also uses the data to guide its messaging. For instance, when Zencity and 311 data showed neighborhood engagement about trees being cut down for a road project, the city was able to help ease concerns by creating educational content explaining how those trees would be replaced. Similarly, when data showed that misinformation was circulating about the projects in a bond election, the city set up community meetings, created videos for social media, and built interactive maps to explain the projects more thoroughly. This strategy paid off in positive sentiment toward the city—and a positive election result.

The city’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement looks at Zencity data throughout the day. The social media manager may reach out to a resident directly on social media to get details about an issue and file a service request on his or her behalf. In the case of myths, misinformation, or negative sentiment, the content strategy team creates content to better explain the topic at hand and distributes it via social media, newsletters, and other communication vehicles.

When the city responds in this way, it builds trust with residents. Prompt response to a concern can move public sentiment from “feeling disappointed” to thinking “our government responds to our concerns.” To supplement the Zencity and 311 data, the city conducts bi-annual citizen satisfaction surveys and often sets up meetings with neighborhood representatives for cross-reference.

Sugar Land has truly shifted its focus to become more proactive in providing services and creating messages, using quantifiable data to guide its strategy and resources. In doing so, it has built a bridge and strengthened trust between the city and its residents.