Call for change

The Texas Workforce Commission oversees unemployment benefits and other labor services for Texas, the second most populous state in the US. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil crisis causing tremendous job loss, millions of Texans began filing for unemployment. For many Texans, this was the first time in their lives they were unemployed. And people who were not previously eligible for benefits, like the self-employed, found they could now file claims under new federal legislation–the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. A flood of questions ensued, and TWC began receiving an unprecedented number of calls to its call center, increasing demand on its website.

The Texas Workforce Commission saw an unprecedented increase in daily unemployment insurance claims processed at the peak of the pandemic:

13,000

daily claims processed daily before the pandemic

42,000

daily claims in the early months of the pandemic

98,000

online claims processed in a single day, at its peak

To support this surge, TWC needed another channel of communication.

When tech meets human ingenuity

TWC worked with Accenture to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) system that could handle the uptick in claims from unemployed residents in need of benefits. The virtual assistant can understand text questions and offer a reply much like a human would. Within five days, Accenture and Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched the virtual assistant. The tool provides informational responses to the most common questions, such as “How do I file a claim for unemployment insurance?” and “What is the status of my claim or payment?”

The virtual assistant was affectionately named “Larry” after TWC’s former Executive Director Larry Temple, who passed away in 2019. Larry Temple was a public servant who, for two decades, brought wisdom, experience and compassion to those in need.

AWS Lex, the natural language processor, identifies topics submitted through text questions and uses machine learning to help match queries to the best answer. For example, if a user asks “When will I get a check in the mail?” the system can recognize that the person is trying to find out when they will receive their payment. Since TWC does not send checks, the virtual assistant recognizes that the end user is inquiring about payments and answers accordingly.

The virtual assistant was affectionately named “Larry” after TWC’s former Executive Director Larry Temple, who passed away in 2019. Larry Temple was an exemplary and dedicated public servant who, for two decades, brought great wisdom, experience and deep compassion to those in need. His reputation for sharing best practices on reemployment and helping other state workforce agencies in times of crisis contributed to Texas being a model workforce for the nation. Larry the Virtual Assistant appears on the bottom right of the TWC website, where users see a box that says “Chat with Us.” Once this box is clicked, it automatically engages the user in a conversation.

Leveraging Accenture’s Advanced Customer Engagement platform, TWC can merge AI, data and analytics to improve the customer experience. These insights highlight how users interact with Larry, helping TWC refine its processes based on industry learnings and best practices, including how to shorten back-and-forth conversations and help individuals narrow down their questions.

A valuable difference

After one month, TWC updated the bot to include a “request TWC contact me” form. If a user needs more information on a request, the bot can present a web intake form that asks for several pieces of information. The user is then placed on a call list for a TWC employee to reach out to them directly. This option helps divert calls from the call centers and allows TWC to reach customers with outbound calls, which further enhances citizen engagement. And now that Larry has proved effective for unemployment insurance, TWC is using the virtual assistant for other agency business and helping to answer questions related to vocational rehabilitation, workforce initiatives and child care.

Today, Larry can support around 100 questions and 20,000 concurrent users – a 233% increase in capacity from when it was first launched. Larry has served over two million TWC customers and answered over nine million questions. On average, it can answer requests in just over four messages. Unlike traditional call centers, Larry can assist customers 24/7. In fact, 19% of user interactions occur outside regular call center hours. Today, it takes less than a day to turn around updated policy information to customers using the virtual assistant.

Larry has won the 2020 Texas Association of State Systems for Computing and Communications (TASSCC) award in the Application of Innovative Tools to Transform the Delivery of Public Services category. This award recognizes outstanding information technology accomplishments within State of Texas government and higher education entities.

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