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Why Email Is Ruining Digital Services — And How to Fix It

Local governments are increasingly making online services available to residents, but then end up drowning in follow-up emails that take up valuable resources to answer. Machine learning may be a solution.

email inbox in a browser window
Shutterstock/Ciprian Stremtan
If you’re spending too much time reading your government email, those digital services you installed to save time might not be working quite right.

Government agencies across the country have acknowledged the top priority of delivering a good customer experience. Though the influx of digital services into government agencies is a positive improvement over legacy, in-person processes, the way those services are constructed could be inhibiting the potential time savings and user-experience improvements. More often than not, existing digital services like online permitting are not equipped to handle a specific resident request. The now-frustrated resident sends an email to a generic government email address.

Now, resident inquiries are flooding your inbox. Your job is to answer them. But what about that list of things you had to do to keep your department running?

You’re drowning in resident emails.

Nowhere is this more true than in building departments. These agencies are actively working to offer and assist residents with information that helps applicants move safely along in the permitting and inspections process.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic — and before departments began considering offering a seamless online experience — applicants would stop by the office, ask all the questions they needed to ask, get the right paperwork and be on their way. Since permitting went online, however, applicants are sending more email inquiries than ever before, struggling with the right way to phrase their questions or not knowing the exact information they need from which department and which person.

So yes. Email is ruining digital services. Here’s how to fix it.

MANUALLY RESPONDING TO EMAILS HURTS SERVICES


One government official in North Carolina we talked with said they spend 60 percent of their time “answering emails and phone calls instead of doing my job.”

“I’m hiring more staff with money that I don’t have to answer customer emails,” another official said. “Our budgets are not going to support the growing number of permits we’re going to have to issue next year.”

Because most residents don’t know exactly what they’re asking for, government employees end up spending a lot of time in going back and forth trying to get to a resident's core question. That process takes up so much time — and that’s before the employee can even answer the original question, which naturally leaves many inquiries unanswered.

That wasted time means already-overstretched department staff have less time to actually deliver the services they exist to deliver, to review plans, issue inspections or provide public records. And how, then, are they supposed to innovate?

“We know we have to improve, but we don’t have the time, being drowned in customer inquiries,” another official said.

There’s also a wasted opportunity in that back-and-forth, as well as in those unanswered inquiries. These manual processes don’t empower governments to use resident inquiries as data to drive decision-making. Departments remain in the dark about frequently asked questions and other common resident concerns that lurk in those email inboxes.

WHAT IF THOSE ONLINE REQUESTS ARE ONLY GOING TO INCREASE?


A majority of government service users rely on a smartphone, tablet or desktop to connect with their local governments.

Asynchronous, written communications build up and require more time to respond to with the right information. Residents increasingly are reluctant to pick up the phone and call government agencies for answers to their questions, instead, preferring email, text messages or using chatbots to get their questions answered.

As services become more digital, residents expect faster response times from their governments. As a result, departments are scrambling to answer multichannel resident inquiries while delivering essential services online.

LET'S FIX IT


We know that digital services are here to stay, and digital inquiries are only going to increase.

Departments should use machine learning to categorize these large sets of resident inquiries and identify the recurring bottlenecks in their digital services. Once analyzed, these recurring inquiries can be answered automatically, pointing residents to the right resources and sites so that they can do what they need with ease and speed.

Then, governments can turn that analysis into insight and use these analytics to measure and manage their performance, allocate resources to meet residents’ needs, and win back precious time to focus on their actual jobs.

It’s time for local governments to integrate responsive technology directly into their inboxes so that digital services can be a seamless customer experience.

Pavani Peri is a founder at Acta Solutions, a company that specializes in using machine learning to automate customer service communications for local government departments. 
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