Improving Access to Social Services via Conversational Interfaces

By Vidal Anguiano, Jr., CityBase intern, Master of Science in Computational Analysis and Public Policy candidate at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

The decision to implement a messaging or voice-based interface can make good business sense. Organizations that use conversational interfaces can automate low-complexity requests, reduce call center volumes, and improve service levels. The savings and efficiency gains alone are no-brainers. However, only recently have governments begun to recognize the importance of improving the constituent experience as an end in itself.

Increasingly, governments are considering user experience when building solutions for young and aging constituents alike. No one wants to provide a constituent service solution that leaves frustrated callers repeating, “speak to a representative” with each breath. Realizing savings and efficiency gains should go hand-in-hand with creating a user-centric method of delivering social services. Constituents will prefer to use a solution when it’s easier, more accessible, faster, and — dare I say it — pleasant.

In my last blog about conversational interfaces and the public sector, I introduced readers to common applications of conversational interfaces in the public and private sectors. In this installment, I delve into challenges specific to effective social service delivery, key considerations for serving the most vulnerable populations in the digital age, and ways that conversational interfaces have and can be leveraged as part of the solution.

Like Finding Needles in a Haystack

When we consider the breadth of social services that support families and individuals in need — whether it’s health insurance enrollment, unemployment benefits, or assistance programs for nutrition, utilities, or housing — gaining access to these benefits are notorious for their often lengthy, and sometimes necessary, bureaucratic processes. Accessing social services is hard. A person is often challenged to find accurate and clear information, learn about their eligibility, or reconcile the various names states give to their state-managed, Medicaid-funded insurance program.

Part of what makes accessing these services difficult is that there is often just too much information. Many government agencies or government-adjacent programs try to solve for this by publishing information on the websites of more organizations, hedging their bets that a person will find the information if it’s available in more places. Though, this often leads to the provision of outdated, conflicting information. Since there are so many thresholds, stipulations, and qualifications for social services, the need to put all of the information out there is real, so that a person can access information that pertains to them specifically.

This, precisely, is the problem. Due to the broad range of information governments need to provide, they often resort to long pages of information with links to PDFs and other government agencies. Web-based wizards have helped reduce the complexity of accessing information by showing only the information pertinent to the user once they’ve answered a few questions, though even wizards can be frustrating to navigate.

Barriers to Access

Many government entities have made advancements in making services more accessible via web and mobile platforms. When we think of our typical tech consumer, we might assume that they can access our web-based solutions on either their laptop/desktop computers, smartphones, or tablets. That surely is the case for adults living in high-earning households.

However, that is not always the case for people from low-income households or roughly one-third of working U.S. households that make an annual income of less than $30,000. Mobile and internet adoption is the highest it has ever been. But in low-income households, 44% percent still don’t have computers at home, and 36% percent do not have smartphones, according to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center. Unlike high-end consumer brands, which can opt to neglect marketing to consumers who cannot afford their products, government cannot ignore this important segment of the population.

Consider the process of requesting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. To start, you must determine if you are eligible. Social service agencies compile a laundry list of eligibility criteria that the requester must read through and self-determine their eligibility (see for yourself). Even with eligibility calculators and web-based pre-screening eligibility tools that are far from mobile-optimized, there are still people who fall through the cracks. If you have a question regarding just one of the eligibility points, your best hope is that they have an FAQ with your question or a phone line where you can reach a live person, assuming you can make the time to call during business hours. Something that for many of us is a 30-minute lunch break call becomes, for others, several hit-or-miss call attempts to get someone on the phone before their 15-minute break is over. If you’ve gotten a hold of someone, congratulations, you’ve determined whether you’re eligible. Now you can print out and complete a 20-page form, mail it, or drop it off in-person during business hours about 15 miles away. Though this may be a hypothetical scenario, this is often the reality for far too many.

There is no single solution for improving access to social services. These services will necessarily continue to be multi-step processes involving eligibility checks, applications, screenings, interviews, and disbursements.

However, we can make inroads in simplifying parts of the process, particularly those which are often barriers to applying, including:

  • Unanswered questions
  • Limited business hours
  • Complex eligibility determinations

Conversational interfaces, particularly those which are SMS-based (meaning, via text message), can bridge the gaps not filled by web-based and smartphone-dependent solutions.

Steps in the Right Direction

The most commonly implemented, low-complexity conversational interfaces have been FAQ solutions that can be trained to answer a variety of questions, at any hour of the day or night. Rather than reading through a list of criteria to determine if I’m eligible, I could be texting a virtual agent that can walk me through the eligibility process. In this exchange, I can ask my questions along the way, and conclude the conversation with an eligibility determination. Assuming the solution is available in multiple languages, I can do the same even if I don’t speak any English.

For services that have seasons of high-utilization, like healthcare enrollment, conversational interface solutions can easily be scaled to handle high request volumes without disrupting service quality, as would typically happen with high call volumes. At a time when government seeks to do more with less, these solutions can help increase impact at a lower marginal cost than the often cost-prohibitive option of expanding the workforce.

One example of such a solution is mRelief, a nonprofit technology startup that has created an easier end-to-end processes — which at multiple steps includes an SMS conversational interface — to help families and individuals obtain SNAP benefits. With mRelief’s conversational interface solution, I can determine if I’m eligible. In some states, I can even complete an otherwise 20+ page, paper-based application over an 8-minute SMS conversation. To date, mRelief has helped more than 260,000 families collect a total of $41M in SNAP benefits.

More than being a fancy, buzz trend in tech, conversational interfaces have and can continue to play a crucial role in providing round-the-clock service, information dissemination, and triage functionality for social service provision. As government agencies focus on improving service access with user-centric digital solutions, they should consider conversational interfaces as an addition to their toolkit.


Also published on Medium.



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