If you were tasked with improving the delivery of citizen services in your country, where would you start? For many governments across the world, the answer has recently been to create more websites. In the last two years, 68 countries added self-service websites for marriage certificates, 81 for building permits and 85 for drivers' licenses.

At least in the U.S., which operates over 6,000 websites, the sheer number of government websites has not demonstrably improved citizen services. According to a 2020 CFI Group survey, 31% of U.S. citizens give up on agency websites and turn to phone calls when they can't accomplish a task. When the same task fails by phone (61% of the time), citizens have few options. Call back, give up or try another government website.

The Dasan 120 call center in South Korea provides an interesting alternative: a single point of contact for Seoulites. Five years after its inception, Dasan 120 managed to answer 97% of the calls in 15 seconds, resolve nearly 88% of citizen inquiries and satisfy 96% of citizen callers (up from 42%). Today, the call center is integrating chatbots and managing the COVID-19 crisis with a variety of AI tools.

At the heart of the Dasan 120 call center is a tightly integrated database of actual citizen questions and relevant agent answers. The range of solutions the call center provides is staggering — as is its integration with first responders. Recently, the call center added late-night support for animal rescues. A 2 a.m. call to Dasan 120 now dispatches an animal rescuer who can transport an injured dog or cat to the nearest 24-hour animal hospital and help locate the pet's owner.

Who could have predicted that late-night animal rescue services were important to citizens? Certainly not a website-driven government. Rather, it was a voice-driven government that listened and adapted to its citizenry. With empathetic agents assisted by novel automation, Dasan 120 can hear what matters, determine what is working and fix what isn't. Compared to a structured web form, which only captures and processes what it was programmed to receive, Dasan 120 drives a powerful feedback loop that aligns agents, citizens and policymakers.

Many e-government strategists believe that better websites will reduce call volumes and increase satisfaction rates. This is often true, but this view misses the bigger opportunity with voice: to discover emerging citizen service trends and quickly address them. In times of war, digital deliveries of parking permits or knowledgeable veteran specialists? In times of sickness, nuisance neighbor portals or medical services?

Let’s have a conversation

Regulated private sector companies feel the reverberation of government policies on their phone lines too. During COVID-19, global banks coordinated national relief programs worth trillions of dollars. With physical branches closed and little time to launch new digital destinations, many bank contact centers became unwitting program administrators, fielding enrollment and qualification questions from frustrated customers.

call center A view of a call center. Photo: Reuters file photo

The banks that neglected their phones frustrated customers further. Some banks informed customers that they simply could not answer their phone calls and directed customers to their websites. Other banks strongly discouraged calls and urged customers to keep refreshing for updates. Without direction from real conversations, everybody was lost.

In Australia, COVID-19 policy is coming full circle. With loan payment deferrals expiring, regulators are asking banks to have a "direct interaction...such as a phone call" with each customer to fairly assess and adjust outstanding loans. To survive, banks are setting up voice-oriented systems to learn from their customer calls and have informed conversations with regulators.

Healthcare systems, which are responding to COVID-19 inquiries too, are similarly renewing their focus on conversational speech infrastructure. They recognize that many callers simply can't wait on hold or have their request reduced to an existing web-based transaction. By answering the call, they are learning how to improve care, especially during a pandemic.

The most successful financial service and healthcare providers learn fast. In this area, governments could learn from the best companies they regulate.

(Evan Macmillan is the CEO of Gridspace, a speech software company based in Los Angeles that teaches machines to assist with human conversations.)