Years and years ago when I was unemployed, being able to speak with a live person at the employment office was important to me. Waiting for nearly an hour in line or on the phone queue was a given, but I still believed that connecting with a real person was the best way I could convey my concerns and receive the services I needed.
The new cohort of job seekers today still have pretty much the same needs as I had back then, but their preferred mode of communication has changed drastically. Whether they’re navigating the city streets with smartphones in hand, working away at their desks on laptops or seating at the coffee shop and Web browsing on their tablets, or “chatting” with someone they are exchanging text messages with another person using their mobile devices. It’s the way people complain to customer service agents about a product they purchased, reach out to friends and relatives on social networks, and how political parties connect with their constituents.
Connecting with clients in the mobile age
Research conducted by the ministry indicated that this age group, which is on track to become the province’s largest demographic, was not likely to seek support by phone or email.
“Our clients needed an accessible way to connect with the government in real-time,” said Mary Joe Freire, director of the Western Region of the Employment Training Division. “They needed a way to access services that help them with their job interviews, skills with literacy and apprenticeship training services.”
It was with this mind that Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) launched the “Employment Ontario Live Chat” program in 2015. It was a solution developed by the ministry’s Employment and Training Division to provide an innovative alternative for Ontarians, especially youth who are among the most vulnerable in the labour market. The objective was to provide a tool to connect with the government and to access the services they need through the method they preferred.
“Youth unemployment in Ontario is almost 17 per cent,” according to David Fulford, assistant deputy minister, employment and training division. “Forty per cent of our clients are between the ages of 15 and 29. Not many of these people like to talk on the phone.”
EO Live Chat was seen as a way of providing a new communications and service tool to enable government departments to reach a more diverse group of clients, especially those who use communications technologies in their daily lives.
We’ve never done it this way before
When the EO Live Chat team got down to work, they realized the enormity of the challenges before them.
“We had to integrate Live Chat with multiple tech platforms within the university and elsewhere,” said Soussan Tabari, chief information officer and assistant deputy minister at the Ontario Ministry of Education.
The team had to open the government Web service to the public, a move which came with the inherent possibility of security risks. The team had to reconfigure and link servers between ministries to accommodate new public facing access ports within internal servers as well as the associated increase in data traffic.
The operation of Live Chat also had to comply with legislative requirement covering the archiving of interactions, protection of client privacy and meet the OPS privacy legislative requirements.
There were also concerns about preserving a positive image of the government and fears regarding “negative interactions.”
During the pilot testing, technical issues and potential barriers were raised by various partners.There were also concerns about the ability of the Employment Ontario Contact Centre (EOCC) to manage and deliver EO Live Chat.
Other challenges to implementation included: ensuring compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); identifying financial resources to develop and maintain Live Chat; navigating numerous OPS guidelines, policies and procedures; and working with diverse groups with different needs.
Taking all these into consideration the EO Live Chat team was also supposed to accomplish its mission within the current budget and without hiring additional staff.
The promised benefits
The EOCC worked with many partners with diverse needs, including: Community Service Cluster (Information and Information Technology (CSC I&IT Cluster), the Government Services Integration Cluster (GSIC) and Infrastructure Technology Services (ITS), MTCU Communications, Cabinet Office, I&IT Accessibility Centre of Excellence (Ministry of Community and Social Services), Cyber Security, Ministry of Government and Consumer Services (MGCS )Information Privacy and Archives, MTCU legal counsel, the MGCS Architecture Review Board, MGCS Enterprise Classification Unit, Human Resources, OPS Employee Union and EOCC staff.
With no less than thirteen different departments involved, it meant working with multiple governance structures and making sure all the stakeholders were adequately informed in a timely manner.
A “single point of technical contact” was established to avoid roadblocks to the flow of information.
Technologies like video and web conferencing were used to keep team members informed and Q and A sessions to ensure the team and EOCC agents were up-to-date on project progress.
Despite the challenges before them, the team was compelled to go on because the benefits that EO Live Chat could deliver to citizens and the government departments involved:
- Enhanced connection with clients, especially the youth
- Real-time feedback and faster service and referrals for clients
- Cost effective, bilingual way of communicating that is ideal for the speech and hearing impaired or those living far away
- Consistency of messaging and quality of information as answers to frequently asked question can be prepared in advance
- Enhanced efficiency as staff can attend to three to five clients simultaneously
Reaping the rewards
The hard work paid off. EO Live Chat underwent a “smooth implementation” and client response to EO Live Chat exceeded expectations, according to Teresa Damaso, director of program delivery support branch for the MCTU.
“Our initial expectation was 45, 50, 60 chats a day,” she said. “We’re averaging 100 to 120 chats a day.” Since the launch, the team maintained three performance benchmarks:
- Average speed of answers – 95 per cent of chats should be answered in 180 seconds
- Average speed of response – 95 per cent of chat questions should be responded to in 30 seconds
- Quality assurance – 80 per cent of chat answers should be preapproved, general information responses
Assessment of the service showed that Live Chat client service officers were meeting all their targets and exceeding the “speed of answer” benchmark – the average wait time was just 49 seconds.
Preliminary client survey was also positive with 75 per cent of clients saying they were “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with their EO Live Chat experience. About 70 per cent indicated they received the information they were looking for.
More than 95 per cent said they were accessing the service through their personal computer, although the service is also mobile-friendly.
While receiving 100 chats per day, we are meeting all targets and have exceeded the “speed of answer” benchmark: the average wait time is just 49 seconds! Preliminary client survey results are also positive. More than 75 per cent of EO Live Chat clients is “satisfied/extremely satisfied” with their EO Live Chat experience. In addition, more than 70 per cent indicated that they received the information they were looking for. More than 95 per cent of EO Live Chat clients are accessing the service via their personal computer, although the service is also mobile friendly.
“They (clients) like the fact that they don’t need to wait in phone queues,” said Matt Hayren, a client service officer. “…We get a lot of youth coming in that typically would not be calling by phone.”
EO Live Chat was also able to “cut back frustration for people who are already frustrated because they are out of work,” according to Luanne Hutchison, another client service officer.
Looking into the future
During the initial stage of the implementation, four EOCC agents were dedicated to answering English and French chats. Now there are plans to train all EOCC agents on Live Chat.
MTCU was the first ministry in Ontario to implement a chat service and in Canada to provide online employment services, according to Fulford.
EO Live Chat now has the potential to be adapted as a service delivery model across the Ontario Public Service. EO Live Chat was the silver winner in the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) 2015 Innovative Management Awards (IMA).
Nestor Arellano is the Managing Editor of Canadian Government Executive