Bots, voice assistants help states manage COVID’s downstream effects

Adding virtual agents to sites and call centers helped Illinois and New York clear unemployment claim backlogs and accelerated their IT modernization plans.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security processed more than 1 million claims for unemployment benefits from March 1 through May 9 -- 11.5 times more than in the same period in 2019. That onslaught quickly overwhelmed IDES workers, and put applicants at risk of long wait times not only for their claims to go through, but to get answers to basic questions. For help, IDES tapped a Google virtual assistant.

“From a tech side, we realized we needed to scale,” said Brandon Ragle, chief of enterprise applications at the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT). A virtual assistant was an easy way to offload some of the burden on workers responding to queries both online and via phone calls.

For context, the IDES website averaged 40,000 to 50,000 page views per day before the pandemic took hold here in March, Ragle said. Around March 15, that number soared to 200,000 page views and kept going, peaking at 2 million in one day. Currently, the site is averaging nearly 1 million page views per day.

To set up the virtual assistant, Google and DoIT staff collected information from IDES and scanned the site’s analytics to determine what information people were most likely seeking and what the correct answers were to common questions. Then, they spent two weeks training the virtual agent -- essentially a chatbot -- before making it live on April 16.

In the first two weeks, the bot received 3.2 million inquiries and responded with 90% accuracy. Today, the bot gets about 140,000 web queries a day.

On April 28, DoIT stood up a voice bot that uses voice recognition to field the questions to alleviate the increase in calls IDES gets -- 10,000 to 15,000 a day or less before the stay-at-home order and now averaging about 200,000 to 300,000 attempts a day. One exceptional day, IDES received close to 1 million attempts.

Transforming the state’s digital presence has been in the works, and using virtual agents was a big part of that, Ragle said. The first step was tying the virtual agents into the site and the phone system to create a one-stop-shop experience for the citizens.

“This was on our road map to modernize in this manner, but [the pandemic] accelerated that for us,” said Jennifer Ricker, DoIT’s assistant secretary. Given the surge in call volume at IDES, she said, “It made the most sense to start there.”

Driven by closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois’ unemployment rate jumped from 3.4% in February to 4.6% in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it’s not the only state facing an onslaught of unemployment filings. In April, the unemployment rate nationwide increased by 10.3 percentage points to 14.7%.

“We have seen around the world this health care dilemma morph into this economic dilemma,” said Todd Schroeder, Google’s director of public-sector digital strategy.

The company also stood up a front-end cloud-based website, bot and call center assistants at the New York Labor Department to meet the needs of that state's recently unemployed workers applying for benefits. The data comes in through the website application Google built and is validated before being routing to the mainframe for normal processing, Schroeder said.

“States don’t need to rip and replace their legacy system,” he said, “but they do need to connect them to modern technologies that provide the experience, the throughput and the automation necessary to meet the needs of today.” 

Because every state’s need and existing technology is different, Google helps agencies identify bottlenecks and vulnerabilities and map out solutions. In some states, that’s standing up a call center, while others want to set up a virtual waiting room that can queue people through the process.

But a common thread nationwide, Schroeder said, is that the pandemic has been the push many states needed to take advantage of modern technologies.

“There hasn’t necessarily been a compelling moment to make the change, and now that there’s an overwhelming need, there is an overwhelming reaction to say, ‘Now is the time,’” he said.

For Illinois, there’s no going back. DoIT has already gotten requests for virtual assistants from other state agencies, Ragle said. Plus, the department has learned that modernization can happen faster than originally thought. For instance, the original strategy had been to put in a new information architecture and add a bot to that, but now they see they can just add the bot and add value to the site.

“We’re really looking at how do we get away from that old government static content site with just a bunch of words to really interactive and customer-focused self-servicing environment,” he said. “Virtual agents are really a slam dunk on trying to start that process.”

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