By Kavan Peterson
Utah residents trying to renew their car registration online or navigate the 109 other applications available on the state's Web site can now get help round the clock from the site's new live "chat" service.
Starting this month, anyone visiting www.utah.gov can chat with a state customer service representative in real-time on their computer 24-hours a day, seven days a week, in a first of its kind service in the nation, state Chief Information Officer Val Oveson said.
"There's really no restrictions on the uses of it, anyone who's interested in what's going on in state government or anyone who has a problem or concern with the Web site or with the government can initiate a chat," Oveson said.
Such real-time service has been available on the Internet for several years, but only five states have recently added live help functions to their Web sites, said Amy Sawyer, general manager of Utah Interactive, the company that manages Utah's portal. Virginia was the first to do so last year, followed by Arkansas, Maine and Ohio, but their services are available only during regular business hours.
Utah officials decided to provide 24/7 customer service about a year ago when Utah Interactive began developing the chat service as part of an overhaul of the state Web site.
"We found that having service available around the clock is a real important element for people who use the portal," Sawyer said.
The link is on the state Web site homepage in the upper right hand corner of the screen, titled "24/7 Live Help."
When users click on the "Live Help" button a new screen pops up asking them to provide a screen name and sign in. On the other end, one of the two customer service agents receive the message and initiates the chat, which proceeds much like an instant messaging conversation.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) and his spokeswoman, Natalie Gochnour, hopped on for an anonymous chat last week to test out the new service.
Without revealing his identity, Leavitt asked about some of the features on www.utah.gov, Gouchnour said. She found out how to renew her vehicle registration.
"I found a very knowledgeable, responsive person on the other end," Gouchnour said.
Oveson has been the principal operator of Utah's chat service since it launched last week and has been chatting nightly with Utah residents and national "e-government" watchers curious about the new service.
Most visitors ask questions like "how do I change the address on my driver's licenses" or "how do I register my car," Oveson said, and he directed them by opening a link to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in their web browser.
Soon, a representative from the DMV and every other state agency will be connected to the chat service and will be able to take over inquiries fielded by the customer service agents, Oveson said.
According to Sawyer, Salt Lake City is one of the most wired cities in the country and residents are increasingly using online government services.
"A lot of people have Internet access and there's no reason why we can't make online government your first stop," Sawyer said.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web, states have been experimenting in streamlining government services by offering them online, a trend called e-government. Utah currently offers 110 online services, ranging from driver's license renewals to corporate business tax filing.
"(E-government) is here to stay, it's a great way to save citizens' time and money and to serve the people better," Oveson said.