In the age of always-available government, providing citizens with online support can be just as important as offering online services. To achieve this dual objective, several state and local government Web sites now feature live chat applications for people who need answers right away. And in some cases, it's a night owl's dream: live chat that's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In December 2004, Virginia Beach, Va., implemented its Live Online Assistance program, giving visitors logging on to the ability to communicate online with Public Information staff about Virginia Beach information, services and events, according to Gwen Cowart, the city's director of communications and information technology.

Utah Interactive, meanwhile, has managed the state's Web portal since May 1999 and has developed more than 100 online applications in collaboration with state government partners, according to Sara Watts, director of operations and marketing for Utah Interactive. Cowart and Watts explained to Government Technology what it takes to launch and staff a 24/7 live chat application.

Q: How do you build a live help service?

Cowart: The application [in Virginia Beach] is a Web-based service we purchased from LivePerson Inc. Virginia Beach is believed to be the first municipal government in the country to utilize this type of technology.

In addition to our other online services, live assistance has proved to be popular and successful based on the reactions we have received from citizens and visitors to the site. Online Assistance averages 2,000 users per month.   

Q: From a technology standpoint, is this easy to do, or is it more difficult than one would assume?

Cowart: From a technology perspective, the Live Assistance transition was relatively easy to do, and the launch was very smooth.

Watts: I am certain that building a really good, live help system is a lot harder than we would think it is. A simple live help system would probably be of medium technical difficulty. We purchased one. We contracted with a company that does it. It's not that expensive.

Q: Are 24/7 services meeting people's needs, and are those services making them aware of something they haven't considered before?

Cowart: Live Assistance is just one component of a much larger initiative we undertook. Every second counts, whether that is by responding quicker or getting the citizen notification out to avert disaster.

Virginia Beach understood this critical need and set out to improve our service delivery in the areas of emergency citizen notification, by minimizing nonemergency calls to 911 and enhancing our 311 service offerings. Instead of taking the approach that these items were separate and distinct functions, we turned our focus on how we could utilize the 911 and 311 service areas to collaborate on enhanced service delivery to our citizens. 

So the initial, and very important, value achieved was alleviating nonemergency calls being placed to 911. By having 24/7 access to 311, the number of nonemergency calls received by 911 was greatly reduced, which increased 911's performance for emergency call answering. 

The related goal was to offer information to our citizens, businesses and visitors through whatever means of interaction they may be most comfortable with. That can be in-person, navigating the Web, talking to someone on the phone, information displays on our government television channel, or in print. The Live Assistance is particularly helpful as the operator can actually navigate through the Web site on behalf of the customer and answer their question directly. 

Watts: The need came because we put services online. And because we made government services available 24/7, that grew a need for support that was 24/7. We're telling people, "Now you can do this anytime you want." A government office doesn't have to

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.