As a writer and public information officer for Montana’s Department of Justice, Levi Worts frequently found himself working to enhance the state’s presence on its websites and social media, channels that are often the doorway into government for many residents.
Through the course of this work, Worts found that Montana was not exactly giving the right impression online, so much so that he began to suspect he needed help. Worts said the state had “a pretty traditional government website, just a bunch of text down pages that was hard to navigate.” Given that Montana — like nearly every other state in the country — is constricted by limited budget and resources, hiring a larger Web team to enhance the site was unrealistic. So Worts set about creating his own helpers in the form of chatbots.
After a soft launch last August and subsequent months of tinkering by Worts, Montana now has dozens of chatbot programs designed to help its residents navigate the online services provided by its Department of Motor Vehicles. Worts built many of these programs himself as part of what he laughingly described as a “rogue project” within the DOJ, spending months reading through documentation and best practices while also teaming with the user-experience company Tars, which offers a chatbot builder for users like Worts who don’t have a background in coding.
The chatbots, Worts said, had an immediate impact, both in terms of enhancing user experience as well as reducing the volume of problems and questions that had to be sorted out by staff at the DMV.
“When the chatbot was introduced, it significantly changed the whole dynamic in the DMV,” Worts said. “Our digital customer service skyrocketed, and people were showing up more than prepared.”
The difference, essentially, was that residents used to go online, get frustrated and arrive at the DMV confused. Now they come prepared, which is, of course, a more ideal scenario for all involved. One key to the construction of this chatbot was taking a user-centered approach, something that is rapidly spreading throughout government at both the state and municipal levels.
For the first week of its existence, Worts collected feedback from users as they interacted with the programs he’d built, implementing it in the process. This continued going strong for at least the first month but has slowly faded a bit, although Worts continues to build new features into the chatbots.
“Overall, it’s driven by users,” Worts said. “It’s for the users, and I feel like its main goal is to continue improving for the users.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.