COMMENTARY

New tools have power to revolutionize citizen engagement

In times of transition, government needs to ensure that it is readily available to serve citizens. Being responsive to citizens’ request for services and questions about those services is fundamental to any administration’s success and will be essential as the President institutes new policies and procedures, appoints new agency leadership, and undertakes an ambitious agenda over the course of his term.

Since the 1960s, when 1-800 numbers first became the de facto means of customer service, supporting citizens has evolved from one-way communication into a multichannel experience that is vital to how citizens get information – and hugely influential in how they perceive government agencies. Over the years there have been many efforts to improve the way government communicates with citizens, including embracing new technology. These efforts have to the advent of citizen engagement centers, which now serve one of the most critical roles in helping people gain access and information about government services.

Some of these most recent efforts have begun to pay dividends, and the latest American Citizen Satisfaction Index notes that government agency ratings achieved a four-year high in 2016. With these improvements, there is also an opportunity to further utilize new technologies to make citizens’ experiences with government faster and better. Another recent survey found that 85 percent of respondents felt that a voice-recognition virtual assistant, similar to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa but with advanced functionality, would be beneficial in navigating government services and websites.

A crucial time for citizen communication

Since January, the new administration has begun to roll out several new policies and initiatives that will likely continue to take shape over the next four years. In order to effectively implement any substantial agenda items, the administration must keep citizen engagement as a top priority. They have faced some initial challenges in this area, as some oversights in the White House’s newly established communication channels have caused confusion for citizens at a time when accessibility and information are arguably at their most vital.

These challenges are further compounded by the fact that information from government agencies has historically been hard to find, difficult to understand, and inconsistent across channels. Fortunately, with new customer service tools that are able to effectively utilize machine learning, bots and artificial intelligence, there is an opportunity to provide citizens with an even more sophisticated customer experience.

The call center evolution and its impact on CX

While more people have become comfortable with using self-service channels to access government services, including online, web chat or mobile devices, a vast majority of citizens — upwards of 70 percent, according to our research — still want a human interaction when they have a question or issue that they don’t believe can easily be resolved. This has led to an interesting dichotomy: Agencies need to provide citizens with advanced tools that allow them to serve themselves, while also providing well-trained trained customer service representatives that are empowered to resolve issues where they want human assistance.

The key to effectively applying both strategies is to hire and train CSRs that are armed to help and to utilize robust self-service tools that help guide citizens through many processes when comfortable handling themselves. The real efficiencies are achieved when finding the right balance between both. The self-service tools need to be advanced enough that they can handle the majority of routine transactions, which in turn frees up the CSRs to support more non-routine and complex issues.

While some have turned to Interactive Voice Response systems to play an important role in the self-serve process, it has earned an unfavorable, but often deserved, reputation for not offering much flexibility for the user. It forces citizens to listen to menu trees that may not have been designed in their view of process or in terms that the average citizen may understand. Some people also have a negative response to an IVR and will not sit patiently through a long list of options, instead trying to immediately get to a CSR. Even with the evolution of the technology, it still stumbles with language barriers or the appearance of an unexpected background noise that could derail the interaction.

Today, however, new technologies have enabled interactive assistants to integrate Natural Speech Language with human assistance to address these challenges, while using machine learning to continually making the system smarter and more adept. An interactive assistant contact literally starts with “How may I help you?,” at which point the caller can carry on a normal, plain-language conversation with a system that is able to use artificial intelligence to understand the request and help respond to it. It leverages behind-the-scenes staff, called Intent Analysts, who are summoned for a few brief seconds to fill in any gaps the system misunderstood, whether it was because of a heavy accent or a dog barking in the background, in order to help move the caller to the appropriate next step – without any noticeable delay to the caller.

Creating value for government

Using an interactive assistant allows users to resolve more issues within the automated system and reserve CSR conversations for more complex, multifaceted issues that require their expertise. This reduces the amount of human capital used for routine interactions, yet still delivers a consistent positive citizen experience, leading to dramatically reduced overall citizen engagement center costs – all of which help create a more favorable government/citizen interaction.

This approach could also be a more effective approach for supporting the VA “complaint line,” an idea proposed during the administration’s campaign as a method for receiving complaints from veterans as part of a 10-point plan to reform Veterans Affairs. Using more sophisticated customer engagement channels could potentially remove the need for a complaint line by replacing it with a veteran’s “help line” focused on getting veterans to the outcomes they need before their request reaches crisis status.

When incorporating an interactive assistant into the citizen engagement center, most see a 20 percent deflection rate due to more citizens being able to initially self-service with a more overall positive experience. For those citizens that do need to speak with a CSR, the agents they connect to will have the information from the interactive assistant, keeping the person from having to repeat their entire situation over again, yielding better outcomes and a faster interaction.

The human element of the citizen journey is still critical, but with these improved technologies, it is also becoming much more effective. And, because the interactive assistant can take as much time as needed by the citizen without a CSR involved, the metrics of success can change from call length and cost to truly measuring whether the citizen achieved resolution of their issue.

For agencies, these sophisticated interactive assistants can provide tremendous additional value by providing immediate scaling when call volumes spike. Citizen engagement centers that handle inquiries related to health care, immigration, natural disaster response and other policies are expected to see increased volumes in the coming months as new policies are implemented, and traditional systems that only offer linear “press 1, press 2” options are unlikely to offer a positive experience for citizens with complex, personal questions and concerns. Chief Experience Officers will need to find a way to respond to these rising inbound calls in a way that can deal with these sensitive matters, avoid long wait times, and help ease potential frustrations and fear.

The future of multi-channel government experience

Providing truly exceptional citizen service requires an integrated and cohesive approach to the digital and personal channels that citizens interact with to receive government service. In the digitally connected world in which we live, individuals can and expect to seamlessly access information with the click of a button. Government must ensure that multi-channel communication is easily available and optimized for years to come.

As the new administration works to enhance citizen services across the federal enterprise, agencies must evaluate the tools they use, their callers’ intent or why they are calling, the content they provide, and the service they deliver in order to meet citizen needs across all channels. When asking the question, “How may I help you?,” the systems they use must be able to meet the changing needs of a savvy, connected citizen – and get them answers. Providing access to these channels will be essential not just to the new administration, but to every administration that follows.

About the Author

Tom Naughton is president of citizen services at MAXIMUS Federal.

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