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ATD Blog

Self-Service Government


Wed Jun 07 2017

Self-Service Government-06fe8b931aeee5249437b0d4c3fef58733656b648a00beff04118ddedbfe6c13

Most Americans are increasingly accustomed to getting the information and services they need whenever, and wherever they want. Seamless, intelligent, and intuitive services enable people to easily order their favorite consumer products, conduct online banking, or request a car to take them where they want to go.

These positive experiences shape their expectations as citizens. As a result, they are demanding higher quality service from government, with a recent Accenture survey finding that 85 percent of Americans expect government to meet or exceed service levels provided by commercial providers.


Delivering improved customer experience is critical to advancing mission outcomes as adoption drives compliance and utilization. And as agencies seek to address potential budget cuts and calls for increased efficiency, they also seek ways to improve service delivery at lower costs. Self-service technologies, such as digital assistants and virtual callback, offer particular promise to contact centers and other service delivery channels to accomplish these goals. 

As demonstrated by the success of digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, natural language processing has made huge strides in making conversational interactions an everyday reality. Research firm Gartner predicts that 25 percent of customer service channels will integrate virtual customer assistants by 2020, up from less than 2 percent in 2015. 

This rapid uptick reflects both significant user benefits, as well as cost savings for the service provider. In fact, an Accenture Federal Services survey found that 85 percent of Americans would use a digital assistant to interact with the government if offered. Anticipated benefits include 24/7 accessibility (68 percent), faster and more efficient service (64 percent) and help navigating complex government sites and programs (63 percent). What citizens value here is accessibility and convenience.  

Case in Point 

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS) Emma was launched in December 2015 as one of the first digital assistants within the federal government. Emma provides answers to common questions and helps users navigate the USCIS website. Visitors ask Emma about one million questions per month and she is able to answer about 90 percent of those inquiries.

A number of factors have driven Emma’s success. She projects a friendly, knowledgeable persona and can provide quick answers. Visitors can use everyday language to ask questions—no need to master government speak—and receive specific responses. And she’s fluent in both English and Spanish, and will even provide additional information to further personalize your experience.


Amtrak is another pioneer, having launched their Ask Julie virtual assistant in 2012. By helping customers navigate the Amtrak.com website, answer questions and assist with online transactions, Ask Julie minimizes the need for customer service agent assistance. Based on your question, Julie can pre-populate forms on Amtrak’s online scheduling tool and can help with car and hotel reservations.

Customers value the convenience of self-service digital assistants as they can improve accessibility, speed up service and minimize confusion. And beyond more satisfied users, agencies reap additional tangible benefits from deploying the technology. According to Gartner, digital assistants can reduce call, chat, or email volume by up to 70 percent while delivering higher customer satisfaction. For example, Ask Julie is cited with an 8x return-on-investment for Amtrak. Deflecting simple requests to self-service channels also frees human agents to deal with more complex, harder to handle inquiries—the issues customers can’t solve on their own.

The convenience and accessibility of self-service can also improve voluntary compliance. For example, when the U.S. Department of State introduced an online tool for reporting missing and stolen passports, they immediately received an additional 1,000 notifications per week. Subsequently, total reports for lost passports have grown by 46 percent. Beyond simplifying the process for citizens, the State Department has improved national security by flagging lost passports more quickly. 

Making It Work 

User insight is critical to developing a successful self-service tool as it needs to be truly intuitive. Instead of taking an inside-out approach—designing around the objective and constraints of the organization—agencies need to embrace an outside-in model that puts the user’s needs at the center of the design.

Service design and design thinking principles can be used to better understand the user journey—what are they hoping to accomplish when they engage your service and what constraints are they working within? Human-centered design can then help ensure that each step, and the overall journey, is seamless and instinctive.


For example, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) sought to improve the experience of clients submitting applications to sponsor family members. They conducted qualitative user research to develop more than 100 user stories that provided candid insights on pain points in the process. The research revealed their initial assumption—that reducing processing time should be their highest priority—did not reflect top customer concerns. Their highest need was for more transparency in the process since after spending significant time and resources preparing application packages, applicants were anxious to know their documents had been received and the review process had started.

Before investing in complex, costly program changes, the government instead looked at small investments aimed at building client confidence, including a pilot of a simple opt-in text messaging application that enables users to be quickly and easily notified that their package has been received. This low-cost, customer-centric initiative is still underway, and seems to be resulting in a measurable drop in calls to their contact center from applicants seeking assurance their packages have been received. More than that, it’s developing evidence for how similar solutions could be implemented at IRCC and elsewhere to address similar customer concerns.

As agencies strive to improve customer satisfaction and efficiencies, they should consider self-service applications and digital assistants an important element of their strategy. They offer the real promise of empowering users, reducing cost-to-serve and driving compliance. However, to succeed these initiatives must employ user-centric design principles to fully meet the expectations of diverse constituencies and provide them with real value.

Editor's Note: This post is printed with permission of Accenture Federal Services. All rights reserved.

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