GovChat saves SASSA R7.5m through chatbot service

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GovChat has processed over 230 million messages since inception.
GovChat has processed over 230 million messages since inception.

GovChat says it has saved the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) R7.5 million through its automated contact centre service, which manages frequently asked questions (FAQs) on social media about the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant.

As the official citizen engagement platform for the South African government, GovChat acts as a centralised hub that brings all government and civic services together through conversational artificial intelligence accessible via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS and USSD channels.

In July, the citizen engagement platform stepped in to assist citizens to direct their enquiries about the SRD government grants to popular instant messaging platforms, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, through its fully-automated chatbot.

The move came amid thousands of South Africans contacting the SASSA call centre in need of feedback about a variety of enquiries related to the R350 relief grant and as a result of the challenges that arose from an overwhelmed call centre environment.

According to GovChat, in the first month of use, the platform has handled 413 032 individual queries, amounting to an average of over 13 500 individual queries handled daily.

GovChat’s machine learning-driven chatbot technology is designed to improve the query-handling capacity within government and a number of other customers on a waitlist.

Founder and CEO Eldrid Jordaan told ITWeb that currently, the inbound call centre market is limited by individual operators’ ability to handle an influx of queries, with a call centre agent limited to an average of 50 inbound calls a day.

SASSA would require an average of 400 call centre agents to handle this large volume of queries, with a cost structure that bills the average costs per seat, ranging from R10 000 to R20 000 per month, per agent.

“The GovChat platform has alleviated pressure on an already stretched staff, with the service enabling citizens to receive feedback timelessly, and have their queries and questions tended to, with no wait-time or friction,” explains Jordaan.

“Over the years, we’ve been strong advocates of a digitised government and interconnected services. This mission has been accelerated by the current COVID-19 environment.

“The success of SASSA’s FAQs shows the power and efficiency gained from digitisation, including tools like GovChat’s automated contact centre chatbot that relies on natural language processing to provide customers with personalised support, allowing human call centre agents to focus on more complex issues.”

Among the popular SASSA queries answered through GovChat are: the qualifying criteria for SRD (5.28%); how to apply for the SRD grant (3.27%); status of my application 28.26%; banking and payment related queries (34.11%); multiple applications and rejections (17.64%); assisting with general SASSA contact centre queries (11.4%); and other (0.4%).

African expansion plans

The communications platform was introduced in 2017 to improve engagement between citizens and local government, by the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs ministry.

As GovChat celebrates its third anniversary this week, Jordaan points out that the lockdown period has seen it gain millions of new users contributing to a total of five million active users to date, with a target of connecting 50 million citizens in future.

Among the highlights has been Department of Health (DOH) minister Zweli Mkhize launching GovChat as part of the DOH COVID-19 Connect Platform, which includes the WhatsApp information hub and a health self-assessment tool which allows for early detection, mapping and management of COVID-19 cases using the USSD and the official COVID-19 WhatsApp service.

Last month, the citizen engagement platform received international recognition from the United Nations Children's Fund, signing a deal with the children's rights advocacy organisation to advance child protection, youth engagement and social policy initiatives in SA.

The partnership seeks to develop communication systems for real-time monitoring of children’s well-being and enhance children’s access to social services, through online communication and engagement with parents and children.

“GovChat has to-date processed well over 230 million messages from South Africans, and we continue to receive requests from various municipalities to assist with transactional capabilities between citizens and municipalities, such as payments of municipal bills,” notes Jordaan.

In addition to engaging citizens, GovChat is working to enable South Africans to rate and report public services and facilities, and upload reports and photographs of challenges to ensure councillors can quickly and accurately address problems in the community they serve.

The new service will provide a complaint management system for local government, with an automated escalation process for unattended queries.

These citizen and community queries will be aggregated into a real-time dashboard which intuitively visualises the data to provide government with an early warning system.

In terms of future plans, GovChat is preparing to launch in Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia, DRC, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast and Botswana in 2021, saysJordaan.

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