They've got answers

ACF stats on questions answered via its Web site

The Administration for Children and Families estimates that it has saved more than $5 million in staff time last year by not having to repeatedly answer frequently asked questions.


RightNow customer relationship management software lets the agency keep tabs on FAQ activity at acf.hhs.gov.


Here are some 2003 monthly stats:

  • Hits: 177,418

  • Sessions: 95,617

  • Answers viewed: 57,928

  • Searches: 17,264

  • Web questions asked: 1,054

  • Percentage of new questions: 1.8%

Source: faq.acf.hhs.gov

ACF's Jerry Fralick, left, and Linda B. Adams added question-answering capability to the agency's Web site. The Administration for Children and Families manages more than $47 billion in federal grants each year.

J Adam Fenster

ACF fields a half-million Web queries each year

People ask every imaginable question at www.acf.hhs.gov, the Web portal of the Administration for Children and Families.

They go there to ask about child support enforcement, developmental disabilities, family violence, Internet pornography and many other things'for example, how to get Health and Human Services secretary Tommy G. Thompson to speak at an event. But mostly they ask about federal grants.

ACF's Office of Information Services found a way to answer 344 of the most frequently asked questions online. The office installed Web customer relationship management software from RightNow Technologies Inc. of Bozeman, Mont., and it continues to fine-tune the database of answers based on user feedback.

HHS has adopted the same package to answer FAQs about Medicare, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and other topics.

Where to go

'Most of the questions are from the general public looking for grants,' ACF program specialist Linda B. Adams said. 'But most of the grants go through the states and tribal governments. We want people to know right away where the resources are for child care and family assistance.'

The CRM software divides the FAQs into 19 categories with an optional search box for each. Visitors who want to know, for example, how many young people run away from home each year will find statistics and references under the category Youth.

If they want to be notified when an answer changes, they can enter an e-mail address or sign up for a personalized account.

Also, they can rate each answer with feedback boxes ranging from not helpful to extremely helpful, and they can choose from a list of related topics to continue the search.

Visitors with urgent needs are not limited to online FAQs, however. ACF posts a list of emergency phone numbers for child abuse, missing children, and state and community services.

Also, visitors who don't find their answers among the FAQs can submit questions online. 'This helps us respond better' to evolving needs, Adams said. 'This year we've had about half a million answers viewed.' The site as a whole gets 1.8 million hits per quarter.

ACF, an agency with 1,400 employees and 10 regional offices, administers more than 60 programs for adoption and foster care, child care and support, disabilities, education, Head Start, parenting, refugees and temporary assistance. 'Each office has its own grant-making authority' for different programs, said ACF deputy CIO Jerry Fralick, who heads the Office of Information Services.

The grants, which are centrally reviewed by HHS, number about 18,000 per year from a budget that exceeded $47 billion in fiscal 2002'10 percent of HHS' total appropriations.

ACF manages the awards with its Grants Administration, Tracking and Evaluation System, which was developed in-house.

GATES has been selected as one of HHS' consolidated systems along with the National Institutes of Health's IMPAC II (Information for Management, Planning, Analysis and Coordination II), Fralick said. The NIH system handles research grants, he said, whereas GATES handles other types of grants.

When visitors want to ask how to qualify for some of these grants, they fill out a Web form that is routed by RightNow's workflow rules to the appropriate person. RightNow also routes and tracks the answers.

'We get fabulous reports on staff performance in responding quickly,' Adams said. 'We take the comments and improve our answers in the database.'

The chief editing goal, she said, is plain language that visitors can easily understand. Few parts of the site are viewable yet in foreign languages, however.

The office started out with a one-year RightNow license. 'We saw the advantages and bought an enterprise license with annual maintenance,' Adams said. 'We didn't want to force ourselves to upgrade Oracle or SQL Server' database versions as they change.

Next ACF moved the Web application from an internal Unix server to RightNow's hosting servers, which saved the office about $200,000 per year.

Adams said she is pleased with the performance. 'We don't have to hire internal staff,' she said, 'and RightNow is almost completely configurable. We can configure the front end and some of the back end to meet our needs.'

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