With the rapid rise on the consumer side of digital voice assistants such as Google Home and Alexa — Zion Market Research predicts the speech and voice recognition market will top $22.3 billion by 2024 — government agencies are exploring voice technology to improve citizen interactions and ease the customer service burden.
“Anywhere that there is information — about your prior activity, about your account, or just generic agency information — one could query through a voice assistant and get a good level of response,” says Paul Seckar, a principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector.
Some agencies already are moving towards this. “It’s inevitable that we will do these things. It’s just so much more convenient,” says Tim Van Dyke, operations chief for the biometric division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Immigration Records and Identity Services Directorate.
Agencies Can Use Tech to Automate Responses
At USCIS, people who are working to become naturalized or who are changing their residency status ask a lot of routine questions, such as whether they need a lawyer or what documents are required. The delivery of this information could be automated via a voice attendant, freeing up customer service workers to tackle more difficult problems. That would also ease the interface for people with disabilities, especially those with impaired vision.
“Conversation is a natural experience. It’s what people are used to,” Van Dyke says.
The Small Business Administration recently launched a pilot project in which callers can interact with a voice attendant to quickly determine whether their business qualifies as “small.”
“We can clearly see that there is something here. There is some potential,” says Ryan Hillard, SBA IT specialist and systems developer.
The idea for the pilot emerged in an innovation sprint, and developers were able to build a working prototype in just three days.
“What’s great about voice is the possibility of making information a whole lot more accessible without our having to duplicate the data or rebuild the business logic. We already have the data, and we know what a restaurant owner needs to go and do. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just ask Alexa or Siri, ‘How do I qualify for a local food or beverage license?’” Hillard asks.
Voice Assistants Can Enhance Public Safety
Voice can do more than just enhance citizen service — there’s a potential public safety aspect too. The Coast Guard, for example, has been experimenting with AI-driven voice recognition as a way to identify the perpetrators of 911 hoax calls.
As agencies explore the new technology, the General Services Administration recently launched an open-source pilot to help federal programs evaluate and test potential uses for consumer-focused intelligent personal assistants. The National Park Service leveraged that for a voice pilot to deliver routine information, such as park hours, daily events and campground locations.
GSA officials say the big win for voice applications may lie in the potential for multitasking, as they enable citizens to access needed information on the go.
“On a basic level, intelligent personal assistants open a new, more accessible path to citizen services that empower users to receive information, updates and alerts without needing to stop what they’re doing and search through a website,” says Justin Herman, director of GSA’s Emerging Citizen Technology Office.
“They can, at the end of the day, make accessing citizen services easier and more effective, which is the ultimate goal for all,” he says.