As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the economy went into freefall. Unemployment tripled to 13% — roughly 20.5 million people. Out of work and with job posts disappearing, millions of people looked for support. They hit state unemployment agencies like a tidal wave of calls and emails.
"Where can I find my customer identification number?"
"I haven't worked for two weeks. Can I backdate my claim?"
"How do I fill out my 1099-G form?"
Facing unprecedented demand, wait times ballooned. People calling from their smartphones often had their batteries die before they even spoke to a human. Worse still, some contact centers began disconnecting incoming calls due to the crushing onslaught of people seeking answers.
This isn't to diminish the work of the frontline employees on the phones. They battled uncertainty and disrupted office environments, culminating in the toughest working conditions of their lives. They worked incredibly hard to deliver answers, support, and advice. Unfortunately, the deck was always stacked against them.
The answers to 99% of citizen queries already existed within each unemployment agency. But the data lives in unrelated and unconnected silos. It's not accessible to regular people like you and me.
This challenge isn't unique to unemployment offices. Information access problems hound all federal, state, and local public bodies. Try searching for "how do I request an extension for filing my taxes?" on the IRS website. Even though the relevant answer exists (see here), the search returns no results. Other agencies are slightly better. You might receive a blue link to a keyword, but that's still not the full answer. It's like a car without an engine: sure, it's a vehicle, but you can't drive it.
Because citizens can't self-serve, they're heaping huge pressure on human agents. That isn't just inconvenient for citizens, it's inefficient and expensive for the country. According to the IRS, in-person visits and support calls to public bodies cost between $40 and $60 per incident. Compare that to self-service costs: 22 cents per incident — 272 times cheaper.
So how can public organizations democratize their knowledge, deliver better citizen support, and ease the burden on their operations? It starts with understanding the problem.
Rebuilding satisfaction in government
You always hear that the federal government is a decade behind the private sector in terms of technology. This isn't because they don't have the right people to introduce new services and tools; they do. It's because they're spinning so many plates — and they can't afford to drop a single one.
Consider social services: health insurance, food assistance, housing subsidies, energy subsidies, and so on. These are critical programs. They are, quite literally, the difference between life and death. Replacing existing systems with emerging technologies often requires an organization to pause their programs — and you can't pause unemployment or health insurance.
To make matters worse, consumer expectations are rising. Citizens are consuming far more data than ever before. Thanks to real-time services like Google and Netflix, people are accustomed to immediate answers. When they cannot get answers quickly or find basic information on their own, frustration goes up, support costs rise, and public trust plummets. You can see this trend in the data. Federal government customer satisfaction is at its lowest point since 2015: 65.1 out of 100.
It sounds like an impossible challenge.
But it's not.
Technology is the accelerant, enabler, and healer
The private sector leverages plenty of artificial intelligence-powered search technology. When you search for "best Italian restaurants near me," Google returns a list of highly rated eateries in your area. It's a fast answer to a natural language question.
While public agencies and private organizations are substantively different, there's no reason why the former can't treat their "customers" in the same way. And yet, the five billion government website visitors (in the last 90 days) are not experiencing the Google-like search experience that they're accustomed to on these websites*.*
Knowledge graphs can connect entities within organizations, helping citizens access the information that already exists. Think back to that IRS search. AI-powered search could understand a natural language question and return just the answer — the right answer. If the revenue service had AI search capabilities, the same search (how do I request an extension for filing my taxes?) would return: "You can file an extension for your taxes by submitting Form 4868 with the IRS online or by mail."
Delivering a reliable search experience on official websites helps safeguard citizens, too. Search engines are great, but they're ad-supported. Searching How do I get a small business loan from the government? returns four ads before the official guidance from the Small Business Administration. AI-powered search can deliver the correct answer without the distractions of ads and irrelevant search results.
Better citizen support is possible today. We have the technology and a proven roadmap in the private sector. All we need is action.
The future is now
Dale Carnegie once said: "Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday." Although he never lived to see the internet or artificial intelligence, his words ring true today. Citizens are standing at the digital doorway. The time for transformation isn't in a decade, year, or even a quarter. The public sector just has to open the door with better search.