Making two-way conversations with residents ‘super-simple’

October 28, 2020

Driving public-sector innovation is nothing new for Dinorah Cantú-Pedraza, who’s trained hundreds of government leaders through her work at New York University’s GovLab. Now, she’s putting what she knows to work in San Pedro Garza García, a city of 123,000 near Monterrey. “I wanted to get my hands dirty,” she said. “For public servants, it’s a huge risk trying something new that no one has tried, to feel alone when people are resistant to change. That’s why I moved here. I wanted to be the one that experienced the consequences of my ideas, for good or bad. I needed to feel it first hand.”

One idea that has worked out for good is a chatbot that residents can use to request services by sending the city a text message; last week, the new tool won a national innovation award for government transparency. The chatbot works through WhatsApp, a messaging platform that is ubiquitous in Mexico. Residents can use it to report potholes, request help with food or medicine delivery during the pandemic, and more, and the offerings can change quickly as needs come up. Within two weeks of the service launching in February, the city was getting more service requests through the chatbot than were coming in through the city’s call center — and the requests come in from poorer and richer neighborhoods alike.

“What’s great is that the number of calls to the call center did not go down, so that means we’re reaching a new public,” Cantú-Pedraza said. City Hall “must go where residents are having the conversations. If those conversations are happening in WhatsApp, then we need to be in WhatsApp, and we need to make it super-simple.”

Pro tip: “Empathy is our biggest tool. Public service is about caring for people and thinking about how to make their lives easier.”