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 VBgov.com 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
be open, and yet, if they get online and get stuck and have a question, they need a way to have it answered.
We noticed we were getting e-mail questions all hours of the day. We also noticed transactions were occurring all hours of the day, so it was a logical step.
Older generations would consider that a luxury - to not only be able to do something online, but to be able to get support online, especially in a government arena. Younger generations are annoyed if they can't do something online and are told to go into an office to do it. So more and more, with the younger generation, it's not a luxury. It's not even a nicety. It will become a necessity.
Q: How is staffing managed?
Cowart: Our 311 operators staff both the 311 telephone calls and the VBgov.com Live Assistance. The center is staffed at different levels throughout the day relative to call volume and live assistance statistics. Staffing consists of 14 full-time positions and three part-time. 3-11 handles, on average, 17,000 telephone calls a month and 2,000 Live Assistance sessions a month.
Watts: We [Utah Interactive] do the staffing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. That's because the bulk of the questions come in during those hours. After that, we turn it over to another state location, so it's state employees at an alternate office who answer the questions during the off-peak hours.
We have four people who sit here and take chats, and answer e-mails and phone calls. They do all three things, and sometimes simultaneously.
The live chat is actually beneficial for us because it's freer than a phone call. You have a little bit more time to form a response. And it's quicker in a lot of cases than an e-mail because you have the immediate, back-and-forth response. Our customer support people really like the chat environment.
Q: What kind of training does the staff get? Where do they get all the answers?
Watts: They knew all the answers because they were doing the phone calls and e-mails already. The issue with chat is you have to be on top of your game with grammar. You do with e-mail too. But with chat, because you're doing it so quickly, we have to hire people who excel in grammar.
Q: What kinds of questions do people want answers to in the middle of the night?
Cowart: The calls cover the entire range of questions about government services, from how to pay traffic tickets to tax questions, to information about recreation classes, to court-related questions. Time of day doesn't seem to have any special correlation to the question type.
Watts: Because we support all of Utah.gov, I couldn't even explain the myriad questions we get - everything from what different agencies do, to specific support on an application.
I asked customer support to find out what they're getting after-hours versus during the day, and there are a few things that drive after-hours questions. The first, they said, is deadlines: People come down to the end of the month. For example, they're late on their vehicle renewal and have to get it done that night. They're really concerned about late fees. Or they're trying to pay their taxes at midnight and they want to know if they get it in at 11:30 p.m., does it still count?
They also get many questions about our leisure applications, like hunting and fishing licenses. People, after they've left work, have time to think about that sort of thing.
They also get a lot of homework-related questions. There
may be parents helping their kids with state history reports.
It's a lot to know, and normally our live chat staff knows where to find that information on the Web. So in the case of homework help, they can point students to locations on Utah.gov that will help them get the specific answers they need.
And all the applications, like purchasing a fishing license or registering a vehicle - they know all those answers. We have more than 800 different online services, and they really are adept at having the knowledge needed to answer questions about those applications.
Q: What's the volume of questions relative to time of day?
Watts: I looked at one online experience on a typical day, Dec. 6, 2007, and we did 876 transactions during normal office hours and 291 outside office hours. You can extrapolate this to all our services, so approximately 30 percent of transactions are done outside of normal office hours.
It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Is it easier to go to the DMV at 3 p.m., or is it easier to take care of that at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. when you're done with your work? You can see why there's a need for these online services and support to help people using them after-hours.
We implemented online chat in 2003 as 24/7. The fact is, those questions are going to come in whether someone is there or not. And if you have staff available after-hours, which we did, we might as well utilize them so we didn't have all those issues to deal with the next morning, and put people off until 11 a.m. or noon.
The big thing, too, is the state of Utah has given us the ability to do it 24/7. In 2006, we did more than 61,000 support calls, 80,000 e-mails and 21,000 chats. So chat is still lower than the other avenues, but is increasing every year.
Population makes a huge difference for e-government because it's a lot harder for big states to consolidate services and get applications like these built. It's easier in Utah, frankly, to get the government to buy in and consolidate the idea around one online service. In California, for example, it's so huge that, logistically, it's a lot harder.