How chat comments can supercharge safety net programs
With help from Code for America, New Mexico is analyzing its chat session data to uncover ways to improve customer experience through automation or a more personal touch.
Code for America today announced the second cohort of participants in its Safety Net Innovation Lab.
The civic tech nonprofit launched the initiative last year to work with a total of 15 states in seven years to unlock $30 million in benefits related to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and developing and improving single, integrated benefits applications.
The four states in this second group—Maryland, New Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C.—will work with CfA to improve customer experience (CX).
“We’re looking at not just one-time changes, but long-term, systemic changes to the way state systems and technologies can work,” said Aurelle Amram, senior director of strategic partnerships at CfA. “We know that technology can enable an automatic, simple and efficient customer experience, and we look for state partners who are excited to implement initiatives and make changes that will impact real people accessing benefits every single day.”
In New Mexico, the Human Services Department has lots of data on CX. It just needs to better understand it, said Shanita Harrison, HSD’s customer innovation director.
“We like for our customers to be involved in the design of our technology, so we really get a lot of feedback,” she said. “We do a lot of outreach and surveys and focus groups with our customers to find out what they really need. And we needed some help turning that into actionable measures.”
That’s why when CfA put out a request for information last summer, HSD answered.
For instance, Harrison said she’s looking to understand where opportunities lie for automation vs. a more personal touch.
The plan is to build on HSD’s existing contact center solutions, which include Salesforce for customer relationship management and Amazon Web Services for text messaging and telephony. Additionally, HSD has an online portal where customers can apply for benefits, a chat that offers automated and live responses as well as a voice channel, also with automated and live responses.
Currently, the department measures general customer satisfaction, “but there is gold in the comments,” Harrison said. “We have been going through the comments one by one [manually] and trying to categorize them. It’s pretty slow going.”
Better, more continuous analysis will let the department determine whether these existing options are effective and what others they need to implement, she said.
Amram said CfA will likely apply to New Mexico lessons learned working with Minnesota, which was part of the first cohort of five states last year. There, the organization and state workers collaborated to redesign and launch MNbenefits, a mobile-friendly benefits application. That work included the implementation of live chat, which is a preferred form of interaction—for both residents and agencies, Amram said.
“They can get questions answered while they’re multitasking,” she said of chat users, adding that “live chat can also reduce stigma of calling in.” For the agency, the interactive sessions “also provide all that rich data as to what are common patterns that can be easily and analyzed across a number of chat messages.”
One way to get that data is through tagging, Amram said. “For example, we might tag live chat conversations to say, ‘Someone is asking about food assistance benefits,’ and then over time, you can look at all the conversation history that’s tagged with food assistance benefits. You can also tag a conversation with specific moments: Maybe they’re having a question about document upload and which documents they need to provide to verify their eligibility…. That makes it a lot easier to do things like sentiment analysis.”
Each state’s project will last two to three years. In New Mexico, the plan is to start with data analysis, then pilot new approaches and iterate on them before going statewide. Ultimately, the states manage and sustain the efforts.
“We have a project in the works called a unified portal where we’re building a new online tool for customers to apply and manage all of their health and human services benefits,” Harrison said. “The information that we get from this exercise is going to help us to put new designs into that planning and really help us to build a state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line unified portal for our customers,” she said. The portal will use an enterprise service bus, a software platform that enables interoperability of data and services, to allow customers to access a single, trusted, centralized profile of a client or provider, according to HSD.
In Washington, D.C., and Maryland, CfA will work with their Human Services departments to streamline the design of their existing integrated online benefits applications for food and cash assistance, health care and other basic needs to make them easier to use and faster to apply for multiple benefits programs. And in New York, they will look at improving WIC CX by piloting live chat and other client feedback mechanisms.
“Technology can provide tremendous reach, and we’re really looking to impact millions of people and billions of dollars here,” Amram said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virignia.