chatbot (Alexander Supertramp/Shutterstock.com)

States enlist chatbots for pandemic response

Approximately three-quarters of states have launched chatbots to help their agencies answer unemployment insurance or COVID-related questions, according to new research from the National Association of State CIOs.

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Although most states already had been considering the use of chatbots to help with customer service, the coronavirus pandemic provided the perfect use case. With millions of inquiries and transactions flooding online services and call centers, many agencies quickly developed and deployed chatbots to offload work from staff. According to NASCIO, about half the states are now using a chatbot on their unemployment insurance websites, and about 20% have the technology answering general COVID-19 questions.

When the Texas Workforce Commission received 98,000 online unemployment applications in one day, officials not only increased the number of call center workers and their hours, but also put a chatbot named “Larry” to work on the commission’s website -- where it has answered 4.8 million questions for 1.2 million people.

To help manage thousands of COVID-related inquiries, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services sent its “Robin” chatbot in to relieve hotline workers. Utah’s “Porter” conducts between 100 and 1,100 chats a day with visitors to the state’s website, and “Missi,” Mississippi’s bot, which had been in service since 2017, was updated with the latest information on coronavirus testing and guidance from state agencies.

States have used a variety of chatbot platforms, some based on technology from industry giants like IBM and Microsoft, and some developed in house or with help from integrators. From their experience, some best practices have emerged:

  • Chatbot technology is constantly improving, so states should look for solutions that deliver the best customer service experience possible.
  • Agencies considering deploying chatbots – whether they build or buy – should first have a focused strategy that addresses specific agency needs and conduct an analysis of what different chatbots can deliver in terms of content or functionality.
  • Chatbot managers should regularly look at statistics that show who is using the service and what they are looking for, refresh their most popular searches and invest in improving the chatbot.
  • States should consider deploying one chatbot across agencies to ensure the exact same answer is given to the same question across the enterprise. Because most bots have a learning component, “slightly different answers could morph into completely different answers if they used different chatbots across agencies,” NASCIO said.
  • Building a chatbot roadmap for the state or offering chatbots as a service could help agencies quickly respond with readily deployable technology in times of crisis.

The report also includes links to state agency chatbots.

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