Here’s What Lies Ahead for the Citizen Service Landscape


Intelligent virtual assistants and artificial intelligence will transform the future of federal contact centers.

As agencies continue to increase their adoption of innovative tools and processes to improve the quality and delivery of citizen services, this year will likely serve as a transformative milestone for the federal IT space. Over the past several months, senior leaders from the Office of American Innovation and multiple federal agencies have expressed interest in shifting their focus to improving the delivery of citizen services through modernization efforts that reap the value from some exciting advanced and emerging technologies.

Artificial intelligence—and intelligent virtual assistants that use it—have tremendous potential in this area. Far from being just a buzzword, AI has practical applications in citizen service, especially as part of intelligent virtual assistants within federal contact centers.

Ripe for Transformation

Everyone has a frustrating story about dealing with contact centers: long wait times, language barriers, misunderstandings and confusing menu trees. Automated, self-service tools (interactive voice response or IVR) were supposed to alleviate some of these barriers. They, however, rely entirely on speech recognition technology (like the kind used to power Siri or Alexa) and are largely ineffective in handling callers with heavy accents, dialects or background noise. This is because the technology can’t comprehend the caller. These tools also rely heavily on menus and “buckets,” which often result in misdirects or reroutes that add to callers’ frustrations. Lastly, they require a tremendous amount of development and tuning to even become somewhat accurate—a process that can take years.

AI-enabled contact centers can help improve that. Taking the best speech recognition technologies from traditional IVR systems and incorporating human assistance to resolve its traditional challenges, intelligent virtual assistants are able to use each interaction as an opportunity to quickly and continually make the system smarter and more adept by utilizing the help of real-time human assistance through a process called machine learning. Using AI-enabled technology, a caller can carry on a normal, plain-language conversation with the intelligent virtual assistant, which is able to understand the request and help respond to it—eliminating the menu trees and misunderstandings that callers encounter with the legacy tools. A human assistor is able to help resolve nearly all difficulties the system has in understanding or comprehending the person by filling in the missed or misunderstood pieces. At the same time, the intelligent virtual assistant continues handling this interaction with the citizen, and through its AI, is able to begin to recognize similar situations and resolve them itself. Using advanced speech recognition, machine learning and human assistance, they can capture and verify information like names and email addresses more accurately than other speech recognition tools.

AI Can Help Quickly Stand Up and Scale Contact Centers

Recent natural disasters in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico have required the government to rapidly establish widespread recovery efforts. In times like these, contact centers need to become operational in a short amount of time to handle citizens’ requests for assistance. Call volumes can be high—not just in the immediate aftermath, but in the months following, as claims are filed for housing, infrastructure, health care and more.

Likewise, almost any agency with a national program can experience the need to rapidly establish a contact center or scale one up to address sudden spikes in volumes, whether it’s the Census Bureau during a census year, the IRS at tax time, the Centers for Disease Control during a public health emergency or Federal Student Aid during student loan application deadlines. In these situations, governments will need a cost-effective solution to manage volume fluctuations, continually adjusting to maximize efficiencies, without lowering the quality of the citizen experience.

AI-backed technology can help here too. Intelligent virtual assistants can be utilized to enable citizens to accomplish more through self-service channels (with less frustration) and require fewer agency resources because live agents are then typically assigned to the more complex issues that require their expertise or a human touch. The technology isn’t designed to replace all live agents; it’s designed to further advance the citizen’s ability to self-serve, with the live agents able to focus on the more complex problems or assisting those citizens who still want to talk to someone (especially during a crisis or difficult time).

Additionally, the intelligent virtual assistant largely reduces the need for short-term hiring sprees and leasing the real estate to accommodate a surge-level workforce during start-up or surge periods. Instead, agencies can simply activate or expand their intelligent virtual assistant to quickly improve the quality and capacity of citizen service delivery. Deployment can be fast and less invasive, and the platform can provide the foundation to go deeper into citizen intent than ever possible before, giving agencies more time to stand-up live resources and saving critical resources that are needed elsewhere.

Innovate, Disrupt, Repeat

A true digital transformation is underway in government. Whether it’s Congressional lawmakers, the current administration or agency leadership, the past year has been a critical turning point for federal IT, as a substantial amount of funding and focus has been allocated toward rolling out innovative federal IT projects.

The highly anticipated Modernizing Government Technology Act is one law that will impact the future of IT modernization in the federal space. As agency leaders seek to continually improve the federal customer experience, AI-backed technologies will be likely part of a modernization effort that delivers tangible outcomes to both government and citizens—and lays the foundation for the future of government services. The General Services Administration has recently announced areas that could most benefit from applying advanced technology over the next few years, with two of those areas being improving the efficiency of contact center operations and enhancing the customer experience.

Applying innovation—not just innovating for the sake of it—means taking these new and advanced technology tools and using them to solve real-world problems, like improving the processes that lead to a better citizen experience. We expect one of these innovations, AI-enabled tools, such as intelligent virtual assistants, to become foundational in the strategy to finding new efficiencies in the way services are delivered through government contact centers.

Tom Romeo is the general manager of MAXIMUS Federal.