Social service agencies turn to cloud and AI to serve families in crisis
While the Great Recession is a distant memory for many, Clark County, Nevada, had only recently recovered from its death toll. “It took us over 10 years to go back,” says Tim Burch, Human Services Administrator for the county, which includes Las Vegas. “And then COVID hit.”
As of April 2020, Nevada’s unemployment rate had climbed to 29.5%, the highest ever recorded by a state in the 45 years the federal government has tracked unemployment numbers. With this spike came an unprecedented number of residents facing eviction.
With the help of 18 nonprofit partners, Clark County began distributing rent assistance to households throughout the first round of funding for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. . This was a cumbersome process that required case workers to manually enter data into multiple systems. “But it was the fastest way to get money on the street,” says Burch.
Not for a long time. In October, the county launched a new cloud-based, artificial intelligence-based portal for citizens to enroll in Clark County’s CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) funds. In three months, the county had processed as many requests through the portal as the 18 nonprofits had done in the previous six months.
The pandemic and other crises have pushed social service agencies beyond their limits. They have struggled to deal with record spikes in jobless claims, requests for housing assistance and other emergency services. Like Clark County, many have turned to cloud-based AI tools to manage the influx.
“At the start of the pandemic, states carried the burden of processing social services with their obsolete legacy systems,” said Laura DiDio, director of research firm ITIC. “These outdated systems were overwhelmed, so they had to transform the technology and take the leap. AI helped.
Clark County faces unprecedented demand for employee benefits
While workers in many industries have adapted to office closures with portable devices and video conferencing tools, these haven’t been of much help in Clark County.
“We live and die by hospitality in Las Vegas,” says Burch. “When you close the casinos it doesn’t just affect the people who work in the casinos. These are the other seven jobs created by the casinos in the community.
Clark County had planned upgrades long before the pandemic. He uses IBM’s Cúram case management system and has spoken with IBM to make it a forward-looking citizen engagement portal. These discussions became more concrete during the pandemic.
The system, which was built from July to October 2020, consists of two components, says Amy Wykoff, director of offer management at IBM Watson Health: the IBM Watson Health Citizen Engagement platform, a portal that allows citizens to request online CHAP services; and IBM Watson Assistant, an AI virtual agent that pre-screens citizens to ensure they are eligible for benefits.
“This eliminated a lot of unnecessary applications from the system, saving the customer unnecessary stress,” says Burch.
The portal allows Clark County to dynamically create new types of programs. So, for example, with each new stimulus package, he was able to easily enter new performance requirements into the system, Wykoff explains.
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Source: Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2021,” June 2021
The platform is integrated with other county systems for an end-to-end solution. Citizens apply on the portal and their information is transferred directly to the county’s case management software and then to its SAP financial platform, says Sadish Kumar Venugopal, associate partner for public health and social services at IBM. Watson Health.
Citizens can access the portal through a variety of web browsers and devices. “Our design vision was that if someone can buy something from Amazon, they should be able to ask for help,” Burch said. “You should be able to apply on your phone in under 15 minutes. “
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Clark County’s goal is to make its portal data available to all agencies and with nonprofit partners so case workers can have a complete view of client needs.
“When people ask for our help, we want to be able to say, ‘Here are some other things you might qualify for,’ says Burch. “At the end of the day, our citizens just know they need help. They don’t really care who is responsible for the grant or the program.
The Illinois Department of Job Security had a similar experience. The volume of calls to his contact center soared, and while the Department of Innovation and Technology helped implement an interim callback system, it was overwhelmed by its own challenges to equip new employees remotely and solve their problems.
At the end of the day, our citizens just know they need help. They don’t really care who is responsible for the grant or the program.
Social Services Administrator, Clark County, Nevada.
“It wasn’t until all of this was done that we were able to pivot and say, ‘OK, now let’s talk about how we can help manage the demand that’s coming into these centers,’ said Jennifer Ricker, secretary by Acting and CIO of the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology.
The Illinois DoIT had been considering omnichannel approaches to serve the public, “but we weren’t there yet,” says Ricker. “The pandemic has accelerated this for us. “
The agency purchased the Contact Center AI solution from Google and integrated it into Cisco’s Contact Center Enterprise platform, which it was already using. They switched to the Cisco Unified Customer Voice portal and then added a chatbot to the website, which responded to 3 million requests in the first few weeks, Ricker said.
After adding virtual assistants, the agency began leveraging AI functionality to help the phone system learn to do more than scripted Q&A. “I think it will be the pinnacle – being able to tap into the data and have real interactions with people about their cases,” says Ricker. ‘
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Photograph by Joe Buglewicz