Chatbots on council websites

I recently blogged about some personal research that I’d carried out to help identify which councils in the UK and Ireland are using webchat and chatbots.

In this blog post I will share some additional research I have done on chatbots. Nothing very ground breaking, but I hope it will help councils who are beginning their chatbot journey and want to find out more. I have created a new Airtable which lists all councils currently using chatbots.

A very big thank you to localgov colleagues who got in touch and helped me to fill in some gaps where I’d missed councils that are using chatbots. The problem is that chatbots aren’t always displayed on every page of a council website, so I can’t be 100% certain of capturing all of them. I checked out likely locations, such as on the home page, contact us, plus possible service pages (council tax, waste and recycling, benefits etc). I still don’t think I’ve captured all examples and welcome further input from localgov colleagues.

Availability of chatbots on a website

Are chatbots added to all web pages?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

About half of councils with chatbots have chosen to place them on all web pages and half only on the service pages that they relate to. Take up of a chatbot is probably improved by being on all pages but if it can’t adequately answer service sitewide queries then its not worth adding across the site.

Chatbot help pages

Is a chatbot help page provided?YesNo
Number of councils24 (49%)25 (51%)

I’d expected to find more examples of help pages on chatbots. About half choose to include a help page, but the content of these is quite variable.

Relatively few councils explain why they have introduced chatbots, what they cover and how they can be used. As councils are often trialling chatbot functionality I think that this content is important and helps to promote its use. Examples of best practice on this include Cheshire East Council, Pembrokeshire County Council and Lewes and Eastbourne Councils. I particularly like Pembrokeshire County Council’s ‘Reasons to try Penfro’, which details the potential benefits of using their chatbot.

In other cases information about chatbots focusses on potential accessibility and personal data issues. I would argue that information relating to accessibility or personal data should be covered by all councils using chatbots.

Liverpool City Council clearly explains the accessibility status of their chatbot. My only criticism would be that the accessibility statement for their chatbot was last reviewed in October 2021 and probably needs to be updated.

An example of best practice on the data aspect of chatbots is Aberdeen City Council, who explain how they will use any personal data given by customers whilst interacting with a chatbot.

Chatbot title

Chatbots are variably presented by councils as digital assistants, smart assistants, web assistant, virtual agents and so on. It would be good for consistency if councils could agree on one title which best describes the work of a chatbot, but I doubt that will happen.

Chatbot name

Several councils has chosen to give their chatbots a name, perhaps to personalise them and make them more approachable. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey. The chatbot at Telford & Wrekin Council appears to have a split personality, being variously known as TelfBot and Tom.

Images on chatbots at Telford & Wrekin Council.

Chatbot service topics

One of the key purposes of a chatbot on council website is to try to answer frequently asked questions. This helps to reduce the load on a customer services team but also helps customers by saving them the time and effort of phoning up or trying to find an answer on the website.

In this section I have identified the main services that councils have signposted on their chatbots. Waste and recycling is the most popular service in this respect, largely because it is the service that perhaps generates the most queries from customers. Council tax, benefits, planning and parking are also popular chatbot service topics.

I was pleased to see that a few councils have added in Cost of living support, recognising it as a growing need. Chatbots should be regularly reviewed to make sure that the information that they provide is up to date and relevant. I was a little surprised, for example, to see COVID-19 still being listed as a topic.

Further information on chatbots

If you are considering adding a chatbot to your council’s website I would thoroughly recommend reading about the Local Digital project on Chatbots and AI. The project lead on this was Neil Lawrence, now a Product Owner at Placecube (see video below).

Other useful sources of information include:

Webchat and chatbots on council websites

My personal research of council websites and content management systems that they use has been extended to include the use of webchat and chatbots.

I reviewed every council website individually as I couldn’t find any tools or websites to help to detect webchat or chatbots. I checked the homepage, contact us, council tax and waste and recycling pages of each council as these seemed to be the most likely places to find webchat and chatbot services. It is possible that I have missed some, so if you spot any gaps please let me know.

In most cases councils either choose to use webchat or a chatbot – or they choose not to use either. Some councils, however, choose to use chatbots which pass off to a human being, usually to a customer services advisor, via webchat. This is perhaps the best of both worlds as bots can’t always provide a full response.

I have added details of councils using webchat and chatbots to an updated version of Airtable.

Below are details of the number of councils using webchat or chatbots by country. The use of these services is currently relatively low across UK and Ireland. I would expect, however, that the use of chatbots will increase over time, replacing the use of webchat.

CountryCouncils using WebchatCouncils using Chatbots
Northern Ireland11
United Kingdom and Ireland4449

The name given to a chatbot varies from council to council. Some call them chatbots while others refer to them as digital, smart or virtual assistants, or even as an artificial intelligence service. Some consistency on the naming of the service across councils might be useful. In one council it was introduced as a smart assistant and then as a chatbot. In another council it was referred to as both a smart assistant and as a virtual assistant.

Some councils have decided to give their chatbot a name, perhaps in an attempt to give it a personality or make it feel less robotic. My favourite names are Oggie at Bridgend County Borough Council and Mona, a bilingual chatbot (Welsh/English) from the Isle of Anglesey.

Chatbot nameCouncil
AB-1Aberdeen City Council
AbbotArgyle and Bute Council
AiDACheshire West and Chester Council
AimeeRother District Council
AlfieOadby & Wigston Borough Council
AmiStockport Metropolitan Borough Council
BasilCoventry City Council
BerkleyWest Berkshire Council
BethTorfaen County Borough Council
BOBBroxbourne Council
BOBiCardiff Council
BobbieBreckland Council
BrenDABrent Council
CeciliaCheshire East Council
ELLISLewes and Eastbourne Councils
Ker-KnowCornwall Council
MaxLewisham Council
MaxSwindon Council
MonaIsle of Anglesey
MontyMonmouthshire County Council
OggieBridgend County Borough Council
OwlbotLeeds City Council
PenfroPembrokeshire County Council
RiaDerry City and Strabane District Council
SamLichfield District Council
SOBOTSouthampton City Council
Sur-iSurrey County Council
TomTelford & Wrekin Council
WALISWalsall Council