​Human Services eyes a future of citizen service delivery via virtual assistants

Despite adding an extra 1,500 Centrelink call centre staff members on Wednesday, the department's CIO has touted a future where the citizen interacts solely with virtual assistants.

Australia's Department of Human Services (DHS) CIO Charles McHardie believes the future of routine citizen service delivery is interaction via virtual assistants, mostly on smartphones.

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McHardie told the Technology in Government conference in Canberra on Wednesday that he sees DHS becoming a "very virtual assistant-heavy department", with the "app" disappearing, and instead sees the citizen interacting directly with the artificial intelligence bot.

"We think you will talk to our virtual assistant to be able to give us a change in circumstance, to be able to lodge a claim, to find out information about DHS, and you'll be able to do it in your own native tongue," he explained. "From a citizen perspective, we think AI and virtual assistants will allow us to, moving forward, provide a dynamic and very tailored experience for the citizen."

After implementing its first virtual assistant in 2016, the department now has "many", according to McHardie. The staff-facing chatbot helps public servants that process Centrelink claims; Sam assists the public with navigating what DHS provides on the department's unauthenticated website; and another was rolled out to look after customers who had authenticated through myGov and were therefore transacting with DHS in a more secure manner.

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(Image: Screenshot by Asha McLean/ZDNet)

Just last month, Sam looked after 126,000 questions; Cassius, which was rolled out last week as part of the department's Express Plus mobile application to look after Centrelink customers, has handled 63,000 questions since launch.

"Our volumes are huge," McHardie added. "The uplift you can get with virtual assistants -- tailoring, training, configuring virtual assistant correctly is a great way for us to make sure Australian citizens have a much better experience when dealing with DHS."

Another virtual assistant the department has trained is Roxy, which was built out from internal conversations between junior and senior staff members processing claims for the likes of youth allowance and Newstart.

The questions with answers that were recorded initially in Skype were then used to train Roxy, which was built out on the Cortana platform.

"We're now in a situations where about 85 percent of the questions that our processing officers have, are answered by Roxy," he explained. "This is how we focus our virtual assistants -- help us with the routine matters."

See also: Department of Industry bins virtual assistant at pilot stage | Government blunders stall rollout of NDIS virtual assistant

As the DHS CIO touted automation to free up staff, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan announced funding for an extra 1,500 Centrelink contractors, bringing the external help to 2,750.

New government innovations driven by private sector

Aside from a focus on virtual assistants, McHardie said DHS has started to dive into its data holdings.

"Traditionally, like other government departments, we've run a very large data warehouse, which we still do. It has 40 years' worth of Medicare data in it, 30 years' worth of Centrelink data in it. It is huge and indeed is the richest holdings of federal government or citizen-facing data in Australia," he explained.

"We've just invested heavily in new datalake, which is running on the cloud, and we're building a brand new on-premises one to complement that, so we can really get a deeper understanding of our customers end to end from when they log in via myGov to when they get payments ... across all channels."

He said it's important that the department is making decisions based on data.

Where new citizen-facing innovations are concerned, DHS, through its Technology Innovation Centre, is attempting to "see beyond the department's current horizon".

"Several vendors have helped us put new pieces of technology in our Technology Innovation Centre so we can show our colleagues at the federal government what are the bits of tech we should be focused on," McHardie said.

"I think some of the big ones that are coming down the pipe is what are we going to do about smartwatches, wearables, AR, VR -- we're very heavily focused on what can those technologies do for us moving forward."

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