Debunking AI Myths: A Guide for Local Government Leaders

Posted on May 3, 2024

A group of 3 people pose for a photo next to a sign for a local government conference.

By Lena Geraghty, Founder, Data Spark Consulting; Melanie McDonough, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Lebanon, NH; and Brianna Sunryd, Public Services Manager, Collins Center, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Lena Geraghty, Founder and Principal for Data Spark Consulting. Connect with Lena on LinkedIn.

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For many local government leaders, artificial intelligence was not a concern before the mainstream rise of generative AI tools, like ChatGPT, Microsoft Copilot, and Google Gemini, in 2023. Now, municipalities of all shapes and sizes are at the forefront of this AI-evolution. While AI has the potential to solve some wicked problems, there are a lot of myths to dispel first. 

At the International City/County Management Association’s Local Government Reimagined Conference in Boston, we led a conversation with attendees to explore some common myths about AI and share some nuances that might help address these fears and refocus the conversation on how to optimize the benefits that AI can bring. Let’s dig into these myths.

AI is a new thing for local governments.

While AI solutions have been rapidly evolving lately, the concept of AI isn’t new. Since the 1950s, scientists, mathematicians, and researchers have been exploring how to enable machines to think and make decisions. Local governments have been using AI in a variety of forms for many years. For example, that spam filter working hard to block out suspicious items from your inbox, AI. The suggested next word or phrase in your email or document, AI. Although the frenzy is focused on AI, this was the same discussion at the advent of internet and email use in local governments. Look where we are now! Government operations have changed for the better because of these evolving technologies. What is new is the accessibility of generative AI tools that allow anyone to use plain language to generate text and images, perform data analysis tasks, and automate repetitive tasks in ways that couldn’t be done before by the common user. Generative AI is already changing the way that local governments operate.

AI will replace local government jobs.

Yes, AI will change the way that work is done in many different sectors and professions, but this doesn’t have to be for the negative. In its current state, AI solutions are more like personal assistants than like Skynet in the Terminator. With a little guidance and boundaries, these tools are able to complete research and provide some informed thoughts and ideas. We all have parts of our job that aren’t as exciting as others. AI gives us the opportunity to pass off more administrative, routine tasks so we can focus on the things that make working in local government great and give us increased job satisfaction. At the end of the day, we still need people making the decisions with information and insights from AI tools. Now, local government leaders who use AI will have a little more time to engage with residents or focus on the part of their work that AI isn’t well equipped to support. 

Beyond being a personal assistant, AI has the opportunity to make us better at our jobs by quickly providing expertise and insights we may not have had access to in the past. Municipal leaders are asked to wear a lot of different hats, sometimes in new or emerging areas of government operations. AI tools can help expedite the learning process or even serve as the expert while we are skilling up. 

AI is too big of a security risk for local governments to safely use.

Everything has some level of risk. It’s a matter of establishing your threshold for risk versus reward. At this point, most of the security issues we see in local government are due to human error. Maybe a link in a phishing email was clicked or a default password was used. Many local governments are taking a phased approach to AI to minimize the risks. They are starting with an acceptable use policy, exploring one or two AI solutions at a time, and providing training to staff on the proper ways to use and rely on these tools. Training is key. With regular training, AI solutions are less likely to expose local governments to security issues.

AI is approaching the same level of sophistication as human intelligence.

While it’s true that AI is becoming increasingly more advanced and nuanced, our work as public servants will continue to require us to center human intelligence and experience. Humans will continue to have the edge, especially at the local level where deep community connection and social understanding are necessary. The ability to adapt to new or evolving situations, especially crises, reminds us of the staying power and distinctiveness of human intelligence. 

 “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” – HAL 9000


The appeal and possibility of AI is immense for local governments. As we embrace AI and continue to innovate we must ask ourselves these guiding questions: Are its benefits outweighing its costs? Is it helping us serve the public better? Is the public having an improved civic experience? While there are certainly things to be wary about when it comes to AI, when local government leaders are active in this conversation and properly informed about AI’s challenges and opportunities, the possibilities are endless.

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