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How the Department of Veterans Affairs used technology to deliver better services during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Zainab Syed | January 21, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged agencies to deliver key services to their customers. As traffic to VA call centers drastically increased during the early stages of the pandemic, the department decided to create a new chatbot that helps the agency respond quickly to veterans’ questions, provides patients with critical information and anticipates customer needs.

What is the chatbot and how does it increase efficiency?

The VA uses the chatbot to provide automated answers to frequently asked customer questions, enabling call center representatives to answer more intricate, personal or detailed inquiries over the phone. The chatbot has reduced wait times for veterans, and helped the VA provide customers with more support and up-to-date medical information.

For example, after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Treasury Department started disbursing COVID stimulus checks, the VA equipped the chatbot to answer questions like, “Is the VA helping to make sure I get my stimulus check?” and “Will the stimulus check affect my VA benefits?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provided the chatbot with medical information about the coronavirus and its symptoms, freeing the VA up to input additional information into the tool, such as VA standard service medical checkups, drug prescriptions and disability benefits.

How have veterans responded to the chatbot?

The VA saw a positive response to the chatbot. After a few months, users engaged with the tool more than 53,000 times and, during peak usage, the chatbot responded to twice as many coronavirus-related queries as the VA Tier 1 Contact Center. According to Kaeli Yuen, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the VA, more than two-thirds of veterans were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their chatbot experience.

How does the automated response demonstrate a customer focus?

The chatbot owes it success to previous VA efforts to standardize how the agency website interacts with veterans and tracks veterans’ responses to the website. Agency staff loaded the chatbot with using the VA’s written content style guide, which outlines how the agency describes its benefits and services. During the pandemic, the department also expanded the style guide to include new words and phrases, such as COVID-19, coronavirus, and social or physical distancing.

Despite having a short time to build and implement the tool, the agency also focused on human-centered design. By piloting the chatbot with veterans for two weeks, the VA made its final product a user-friendly tool responsive to the needs of our nation’s veterans.

Use technology to create user-centered products at your agency

For more information on the chatbot and other new tech tools, read “Bit by Bit: How Governments Used Technology to Move the Mission Forward During COVID-19.”

Zainab Syed is a former intern on the Partnership’s Research, Analysis and Evaluation team.