The Future of Online Citizen Services

Jimmy Fallon’s Nick Burns – Computer Guy captured a lot of what people loathed (and feared) about computer support techs. The signature line was the condescending command that Nick gave to his clients as they sat in front of their machines: “Move!”

In the two years since those sketches, computers have migrated from our desks to our pockets, and now play an even greater role in our daily lives. We watch TV on them, read our cookbooks, write emails and stay engaged on social media—and we still, from time to time, need help using them.

Many applications have sprung up that would have cost Nick Burns his job. We can now use online tools to allow experts to see our desktops, analyze and even solve our computer problems all without having to get out of our chair. As these applications become more sophisticated—a new version of this even shows the actual human being who is servicing the machine in a video window—do they point to the future of government customer service?

Phone companies, car dealerships, and of course computer retailers also use online chat agents to help their customers (or prospective customers) navigate their sites and make decisions about their products. Could that be a model for government sites?

I can imagine numerous applications of on-screen customer-support for the federal government:

  • Every year, more than 20 million people fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). To help answer the innumerable questions that applicants have, the Department of Education has established the hastag, #AskFAFSA. How much more easily would people be able to complete the form correctly, if the Department could have an application like Mayday or LogMeIn?
  • When emergencies occur—like the Colorado floods, the tornado in Joplin, MO, or the hurricanes and earthquakes that force people from their homes—many residents have no idea how to apply for loans, where to find emergency services, or how to access the services that are promised to them. What if FEMA addressed this with a Mayday-style app created (and disseminated) for each specific circumstance?
  • Of course, the ripest apple in this bushel is the IRS. The question is, would people feel comfortable with the privacy elements built into the platform? That would be a critical issue to address, but with the proper safeguards in place, it could streamline the process for tens of millions of filers.

Certainly HHS, at the federal level, and countless government agencies at the state and local level could also use a service like this. What are your best suggestions?

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