Department of Industry bins virtual assistant at pilot stage

​After building a business case and working alongside the ATO to develop the platform, the department decided not to go live with its virtual assistant pilot.

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has revealed it binned a virtual assistant it had developed for its business.gov.au website, with Emma Walker, manager of Digital Engagement Capability at the department's Business Services Branch saying the bot would have given the consumer a "worse experience".

Speaking at the Overcoming the Challenges of Digital Transformation conference in Canberra on Wednesday, Walker detailed the steps taken by Industry to develop the capability.

She said the idea for the virtual assistant came about after the department's secretary and the tax commissioner decided both the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and Industry needed more inter-agency collaboration.

As the ATO already had its Alex virtual assistant, Industry thought it could get away with piggybacking off it for business.gov.au.

After meeting with the ATO, Walker said they used Alex for functions like reducing contact centre costs, which she said wasn't applicable to Industry given its contact centre was meeting its SLAs "quite comfortably".

"We don't feel like we're spending a lot on that support, so that turned out to not be a driver for us," she explained.

"There was another assumption or hypothesis that potentially a lot of customers wanted support out of hours from our contact centre ... but what we actually realised when we deep-dived into that was that people weren't actually clicking the web chat option after hours. There wasn't a huge need for after-hours support."

Walker said Industry settled on providing a "no wrong door approach", which offered a consistent experience between ato.gov.au and business.gov.au.

"Alex is very much a content navigator ... which is really valuable, but we weren't sure if we found the same needs on business.gov.au," she added.

Industry then prepped a pilot on an area of business.gov.au. Alex already had information on the R&D Tax Incentive as it was something the ATO also deals with, so Industry didn't need to tweak it too much to hold relevance in a business.gov.au context, Walker explained.

However, after implementing the virtual assistant on a test site, Walker said Industry found it was not meeting the needs of its end users. One example of this was it wasn't remembering any context of where the user was.

"We worked a lot with ATO to see if we could get around their current technical constraints of the instance, and we weren't able to," she said. "So noting that, our recommendation was not to go live with the pilot."

Instead, Industry has opted for a 'discovery phase', put as a whole-of-government exercise to explore what a virtual assistant would mean in a government context.

Walker said that although Industry didn't deliver, the department has labelled the process a success as a virtual assistant would have given the consumer a "worse experience".

She said it was also assumed call centre volume would go up with the implementation of a virtual assistant, as people would be confused while navigating business.gov.au.

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