Chatbots vs. RPA vs. virtual assistants
Improving customer service is an imperative for governments at all levels as evidenced by the goals of the President’s Management Agenda and the National Association of State Chief Information Officer’s top 10 priorities list for 2019. To do it, more agencies are turning to emerging tools such as chatbots, virtual assistants and robotic process automation (RPA).
So what’s the difference and how are agencies using the new technologies?
Chatbots are among the most common of the three applications, although the three are interconnected. “Short for ‘chat robot,’ a chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation, or chat, through artificial intelligence,” according to DigitalGov.gov. Conducting conversations via auditory or textual methods, chatbots ultimately answer users’ questions or link them to the people or resources that can.
Although building a chatbot takes considerable work — cleaning, metadata-tagging and organizing data and tying it to natural language processing and other technology — the benefits of chatbots can be substantial. The include the integration and management vast amounts of data from multiple sources, identification of patterns based on customer interactions and reduction of the amount of time employees spend on “mundane tasks,” Adelaide O’Brien, research director at IDC Government Insights, wrote in an email to GCN. The result is better served citizens and more engaged employees.
“Bots can provide 24 x 7 customer assistance. Bots can ask questions about individuals’ needs, habits, and preferences and offer contextual and personalized services based on a combination of constituent supplied data and data from other sources,” O’Brien said. “Chatbots will significantly increase the capability to process vast amounts of data and reduce the need for employees to perform repetitive tasks, such as [answering] questions regarding services, qualification for benefits, and eligibility for refunds, freeing employees to engage in more difficult decisioning.”
She pointed to a bot that the NASA Shared Services Center at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi uses to streamline workloads of employees including the space agency’s CIO and CFO. In May 2017, NSSC, a fee-for-service organization that provides agencywide human resources, procurement, financial management, data center support and service desk transactional services, launched George Washington, the federal government’s first digital bot, to help with human resources and procurement processes.
“Washington bot, with its email account, credentials to access operational systems, and ability to run based on receipt of emails, was integrated with NSSC staff,” O’Brien said. “Whether Washington ingests structured emails to create tickets for new employee suitability adjudication or logs into the financial management software to enter human-approved budget information, it acts and looks to employees like any other employee that reads and processes emails, looks for new files in group folders, provides feedback in real time when exceptions to work instructions are encountered, and reports all of its work upon completion.”
In June 2017, NSSC added the John Adams bot for finance-related work. Today, it also has the Pioneer bot, which creates procurement requests for the Office of the CIO, and plans to put a fourth bot, Beacon, into production in early 2019.
Talking up chatbots
“We’re pretty early on in this market because only about 10 percent of enterprises have production chatbots in deployment, based on some research we did a few months ago,” said Van Baker, a research vice president for Gartner’s Application Innovation team. But “I’m getting lots of questions from federal, state and local governments around the deployment of chatbots to basically improve accessibility to the services by the citizenry that they serve.”
For instance, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Emma is a bilingual interactive assistant that sits in the top right of the agency’s website waiting for users to click and ask questions. Another is the Army’s Sgt. Star, which can answer questions about joining the service, including pay rates and enrollment processes.