How the US Treasury turned fear of AI into love of automation

Automation can conjure up dread of a faceless monster that chews up jobs with its high-efficiency capabilities. But that’s more akin to Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” than reality. In today’s contact centers, automation is more like an assistant than a monster. And government agencies, in particular, are embracing it even more because automation fills service gaps created by budget shortfalls and solves urgent citizen problems — fast.

In a recent online training webinar, GovLoop brought together two government industry experts to discuss how agencies are turning to automation to create better customer experiences.

Times Are Changing and Agents Need Assistance

Without the time-saving benefits of automation, agents can’t manage their growing workloads.

“With fewer resources in virtually all agencies, meeting the needs of citizens puts more workload on agents to service citizens experiencing increasingly difficult situations,” said Jennifer Hill, Program Analyst at the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service.

The Bureau has been making process improvements through robotic process automation (RPA), a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that automates repetitive functions. It was a good start in its plans for adopting more sophisticated AI capabilities that citizens rely on in the private sector.

“Citizens use self-service with their banks or utilities and question why can’t they have the same basic services with government agencies,” said Jodi Thompson, Senior Principal Business Consultant at Genesys. “They might not say they want to engage with a chatbot, but if you ask whether they want to use self-service for basic tasks, they do.”

Chatbots Change the Way You Work

The 24 contact centers that serve the Department of the Treasury take millions of calls per year. “Many of these are misdirects to the wrong person or team,” said Hill. “Chatbots can take care of the misdirection through AI and deflect simple inquiries.”

Chatbots will enable Fiscal Service employees to spend more time handling complex issues that would benefit from the human touch and the sound of empathy. The Bureau is still exploring chatbots and how to use them effectively, but they’ve already learned a lot.

“To make these technologies successful, we have to operate more as an enterprise, not in silos. And IT has to be a key stakeholder, both from a technology and a security perspective,” Hill said.

When RPA efforts first began, employees expressed fear that they’d be replaced. To alleviate these concerns, Hill said the agency engaged employees early on in the journey to decide the right use cases for the technology. And that drove a change in mindset as agents experienced the new efficiencies – and the workload that automation lightened.

How to Engage More by Using Bots

One of the key advantages of using bots is that agencies can offer self-service around the clock, 365 days a year. However, it’s not an all or nothing transformation.

“We’re seeing agencies be very specific and strategic about which questions are best for the bot to handle directly,” said Thompson. “They want use cases that won’t require a handoff to a human when a human is not available. By identifying the most frequently asked questions that a chatbot can handle on its own, agencies can offer convenience for the citizen and remove time of day from the equation. It satisfies everyone’s needs.”

Understanding Barriers to Automation

In a poll during the GovLoop online training, attendees were asked why their agency hadn’t moved forward with automation and AI – especially considering the evidence of its benefits. The poll highlighted three primary reasons: having competing priorities, security concerns and limited funding.

“None of these are surprising,” said Thompson. “But there are ways to overcome each hurdle and gain those long-term benefits.”

Thompson suggested that agencies address competing priorities by finding tangible and measurable ways to show the business case for automation and how it aligns to your mission.

You can also choose solutions that the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) approved to alleviate concerns about security. “This not only gives you a reliable and standard level of security assurance, it also simplifies the entire deployment process,” said Thompson.

And finally, don’t worry about doing everything today or even in the near future. Instead, look for solutions that are flexible enough to grow as your comfort with automation grows. Use it to your best advantage.

Watch the on-demand GovLoop training with Genesys and the Bureau of Fiscal Service.