National Contact Center’s Text Message Program
The Contact Center Services Division, within GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, manages the National Contact Center. The NCC exists to answer the public’s questions about all federal programs and services, by getting people to the information they need. We do this through:
• a toll-free number (1.800 FED INFO),
• an email inquiry webform, found at usa.gov, as well as
• a webchat service, also found at usa.gov, and
• a full complement of FAQs on timely and popular topics at answers.usa.gov.
Our newest addition to this list is our SMS (text messaging) service, which offers links to topical information through a free subscription line.
One of our primary goals is to offer information to citizens in the way they want to receive it. We constantly strive to broaden both our audience base and our variety of information channels. Providing access through mobile devices was the next logical step for us. While our FAQs and our email webform were available to users through smart phones, we knew mobile devices offered so many more possibilities. SMS offered a logical new way to branch out and improve our delivery.
Our initial plan was three-fold, and we planned to phase in each step after gaining proficiency in the previous one:
• establish a subscription list service
• create a government publication ordering system
• provide the capability for question and answer with an agent through texting
We would work from simplest to most complex in this list, learning from each experience and using it to gauge the feasibility of the next.
We began in early 2010, first soliciting input from other government contact centers on their own experiences with the use of SMS, and then mapping out what we envisioned for our own program. Since this service was covered by our existing task order with the contractor who already managed our contact center, we engaged them for suggestions and solicited a bid for the work. Everyone on our own government team also contributed ideas and brainstormed possible problems and solutions.
Across several months of discussion, we developed the basic flow for our subscription process, along with the message language for acknowledging subscription enrollments, ending subscriptions, and “error” and “help” responses. We developed a page on usa.gov both to publicize the service and also to serve as the response to a “help” or “error” request. We decided against the need to offer a phone contact for “help.”
Under the terms of our task order, our contractor secured the desired SMS code we were looking for (872468 – which spells “usa.gov,” depending on your phone’s dialpad – letters and numbers can run in either direction!) and handles all aggregator contracts and provider issues, simplifying our task and keeping us moving.
Unlike many text subscription plans, our goal was always to use 872468 (usagov) for multiple subscription lines, as our needs developed and opportunities presented themselves. Our first subscription line is for “Pub Alerts.” Since our office maintains the usa.gov website and the Consumer Information Catalog/Pueblo Colorado publication program, we decided to offer a subscription service that highlights publications offered through our publications.usa.gov page. This page offers publications on consumer issues, health issues…anything the public might be interested in, drawing on information offered by many government agencies. At publications.usa.gov, a user can click on a link for an html or pdf offering, usually maintained by outside agencies such as HHS or FDA. But he can also order a print version from the online order form on the same page, if a print version is available. When people subscribe to the Pub Alert subscription line at 872468, they receive regular text messages highlighting topics available through this site.
We tested our first message on 6/14/11, spent a little time working out kinks and procedures, and fully launched on 10/3/11. October 3rd actually coincided with the launch of the new publications.usa.gov site. We use bit.ly to shorten the links we provide, which helps with the 160 character limitation, and we constantly look for ways to advertise the subscription line. We’ve promoted it through our usa.gov email subscription mailings, and featured it on the usa.gov rotator box. To date, we have a small but steadily growing audience. To get a taste of what we offer, text the word PUB to 872468 yourself. You’ll start receiving regular messages, about one per week. We’re careful about not overwhelming our users.
With our plan to use the same ‘branded’ SMS code for multiple lines, it became apparent we could not use standard stand-alone keywords for standard requests. For example, to subscribe we could not simply use the word “subscribe” or “opt in”; with multiple lines, the system wouldn’t know which subscription line the user wanted. We realized we had to think ahead. So we chose entries that include the subscription line title as part of the request phrase. For example, the common “subscribe,” “unsubscribe,” and “stop” won’t work; they’ll only generate an error message. However “pub subscribe,” “pub unsubscribe,” or “pub stop” will all produce the desired effect. With any subsequent subscription line we implement, the same keyword system would apply: both a program descriptor and the standard request word are needed.
Getting the word out is one of our biggest challenges. While we’re happy with our results and the process is working smoothly, we’re always looking for new ways to publicize its availability to the public.
As far as phases 2 and 3 of our original plan are concerned — we’ve decided we’re not wedded to the plan. With the creation of the publications.usa.gov page which offers its own mechanism for ordering print publications with each offering, the need for a separate order form (phase 2) is drastically diminished. We may never implement this phase. And in terms of the public being able to text a question to an agent and get a reply – we’re rethinking that too. Our contractor is currently scoping out a proposal for mobile chat instead.
Which we’ll end up with – mobile chat or texted questions – is still in our future.