SSA tests personal touch on Web

The Social Security Administration soon may push interactive online government

service to a new high.

Customers surfing SSA's Web site can already find retirement planning

guides and retirement benefits applications. But in the future, SSA site

visitors may be able to deal with a living, breathing person who will answer

questions via an instant messaging — or even voice — system.

The agency, along with CommerceNet — a nonprofit consortium of more

than 400 companies — tested such technology for six weeks during September

and October. SSA and CommerceNet officials will meet with General Services

Administration officials in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7 to review the proof-of-concept

testing.

"The goal is to have people's issues resolved in one session [online],"

said Tony Trenkle, director of SSA's electronic services staff in Baltimore.

During the test phase, SSA set up a laboratory with 10 computer workstations.

Half were used by testers acting as customers and the other half by those

acting as SSA customer service agents.

"Over 100 different people acted as test customers," said John Meyer,

a CommerceNet consultant who helped manage the program. "They would use

these [computers] to contact or go to the SSA Web site and actually conduct

business."

In all, SSA and CommerceNet oversaw the testing of four prototype systems,

with services including e-mail response, automatic callback, instant messaging

exchange and voice.

One prototype included "natural language processing," Meyer said, which

would sort through a customer's questions and forward the customer to the

proper representative.

Trenkle said an evaluation of the prototypes, drafted by KPMG Management

Consulting, could be released as early as Nov. 17. CommerceNet's own report

on the project should be completed by the end of the month, according to

Meyer.

Just what kinds of services are introduced to SSA's Web site will depend

on what KPMG's evaluators find, Trenkle said. SSA will go over the findings

with them, he said, "then decide which technologies we think are ready for

prime time."

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