Joshua Blank (UC-Irvine; Google Scholar) & Leigh Osofsky (North Carolina; Google Scholar), Redesigning Automated Legal Guidance, The Regulatory Review (Sept. 6, 2022):
Federal agencies perform many functions and responsibilities. One of these functions is to help members of the public understand and apply the law. Increasingly, agencies provide this aid using automated legal guidance tools, such as chatbots, virtual assistants, and other automated systems.
For instance, when individuals have questions about their immigration status, they can turn to Emma, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’s computer-generated virtual assistant. When they have questions about their student loans, they can ask Aidan, the U.S. Department of Education’s virtual assistant that answers questions about federal student aid. And when they have questions about how personal and business activities affect their U.S. federal tax liability, they can consult with the Internal Revenue Service’s Interactive Tax Assistant to answer taxpayers’ personal tax questions.
There are a number of explanations for federal agencies’ increasing use of automated legal guidance tools. Under the Plain Writing Act of 2010, agencies are required to communicate complex legal rules and procedures to the public in “plain language.” Still, the formal law—comprising statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions—is often so complex that it is difficult, if not impossible, for most members of the public to comprehend.
Agencies also often lack sufficient resources to explain legal matters entirely through the use of human customer service representatives. Furthermore, agencies face pressure to provide comparable service with the private sector, where automated customer service tools have become commonplace. Automated tools appear to help agencies respond to a number of these problems by translating complex legal material and by making it more accessible.
As a result, several federal agencies are now using automated guidance tools to respond to tens of millions of inquiries regarding the law each year. Other agencies are considering introducing these tools as a supplement or replacement for human customer service representatives. Despite the prevalence of this shift, scholars who have studied technology and artificial intelligence at government agencies have not focused on agencies’ use of automation to explain the law.
To address the growing use of automated legal guidance tools by federal agencies, the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) charged us with examining federal agency use of automated legal guidance and offering recommendations for reform.