As states continue to struggle with record numbers of unemployment claims, they need to leverage technology to help agencies meet demand. Data from January 2021 shows a national unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, well below the April 2020 rate of 14.7 percent but still worryingly high.
States are fielding thousands of phone calls and emails from their constituents. In this environment, agencies must augment their contact center solutions with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to disburse benefits to citizens in a time of need as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The state of Illinois leveraged AI/ML technologies to respond to and quickly manage a flood of unemployment claims at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Agencies across the country can learn from the solution Illinois deployed to efficiently deliver aid to citizens while also doing so cost effectively.
How Technology Transformed an Illinois Call Center
From March 1 to April 4, 2020, the Illinois Department of Employment Security received 513,173 unemployment claims — more than the entire number of claims filed in 2019. It was impossible for IDES employees to handle this volume, resulting in many disconnected phone calls and unanswered online queries.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for increased call center capacity, in large part through the implementation of new technologies to help employees handle the volume of queries. Gov. Pritzker wanted to minimize dropped calls and deliver a response to all online queries so citizens could receive the benefits they needed.
IDES augmented its existing contact center operations with an AI component. This new technology, virtual intelligent agents, alleviated overburdened human agents from having to respond to every inquiry that came in. Before, agents were overwhelmed by the volume of inquiries, which ranged from questions about how gig workers could apply for benefits to queries about the status of a claim. Virtual agents utilizing AI and ML technology are now equipped to take on these processes at scale.
Now, when a citizen calls in or reaches out on the web, they are immediately engaged with a virtual intelligent agent. Using natural language processing, the virtual intelligent agent answers their questions or triages their inquiries to human agents.
As a result, virtual intelligent agents are able to handle thousands of simultaneous omnichannel inquiries, and agency employees now have the time to handle the more intensive, complex claims that require human attention. IDES’ strategy exemplifies the actions that state agencies can and must take to weather these unprecedented times.
Best Practices for Using AI in Government Services
States are challenged by resources, budgets and time. Citizens don’t always know this, and they expect services from states when they need it most. Illinois faced these same challenges. Here are two strategies that can help states innovate while keeping costs in check:
Augmenting — not replacing — existing technologies. States can be reluctant to implement large-scale “lifts and shifts” of existing platforms. They don’t have the time or budget for a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort.
Instead, states can use the cloud to cost-effectively and expeditiously build on their existing legacy systems. Platform-agnostic cloud software, like that which powers a virtual intelligent agent, can run in conjunction with legacy technologies.
There’s no need for a three-year system upgrade that will cost money agencies don’t have. Agencies can simply license the software, pay a nominal fee, and be able to scale up or down to meet citizens’ demands.
Respecting citizens’ needs. People contacting unemployment agencies are already likely under an enormous amount of stress. They need to get their claims in as quickly as possible and don’t want to worry about having their calls ignored or dropped, not having their questions answered accurately, or not getting their benefits processed expeditiously. They also want to be met without delay wherever they are, whether on the phone, on the web or even via social media.
That can’t happen without support that is adaptive, intelligent, omnichannel, personalized, and, to some extent, machine enabled. AI can take much of the pressure off contact center employees by managing a good portion of inquiries. Employees can then focus their efforts on ensuring that people get the unemployment benefits they need to survive.
How AI Can Enhance Other Government Operations
Contact centers are only one area where AI can be beneficial for state and local agencies. Machines can also be trained to detect criteria that may indicate fraudulent unemployment claims, alleviating the need for human adjudicators to spend countless hours looking for anomalies.
Food assistance and affordable housing requests can also be expedited through use of AI, with the money saved from these processes circulated back into the economy.
Whatever the use case, agile, incremental modernization centered on AI is available, affordable and can have a massive and positive impact on the way state and counties service their citizens.