Tim Burch, Human Services Administrator for Clark County, Nev., is focused on the plight of urban residents who need housing assistance. 

Sep 16 2021

Social Service Agencies Turn to the Cloud and AI to Serve Families in Crisis

Large numbers of applicants required new means of processing benefits.

While the Great Recession is a distant memory to many, Clark County, Nev., had only recently recovered from its toll. “It took us more than 10 years to crawl back,” says Tim Burch, human services administrator for the county, which includes Las Vegas. “And then COVID hit.”

By April 2020, Nevada’s unemployment rate had jumped to 29.5 percent, the highest reported by any state in the 45 years that the federal government has tracked unemployment figures. With that spike came an unprecedented ­number of residents facing eviction.

With help from 18 nonprofit partners, Clark County began distributing rental assistance to households through the first round of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act ­funding. It was a cumbersome process that required case workers to manually input data into multiple systems. “But it was the quickest way to get money on the street,” Burch says.

Not for long. In October, the county launched a new artificial ­intelligence–enabled, cloud-based portal so citizens could apply themselves for Clark County’s CARES Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) funds. Within three months, the county had adjudicated as many applications through the portal as all 18 nonprofits had in the ­preceding six months.

The pandemic and other crises have pushed social service agencies past their limits. They’ve struggled to process record-setting spikes in unemployment claims, housing assistance requests and other emergency services. Like Clark County, many have turned to cloud-based AI tools to handle the influx.

“At the onset of the pandemic, states were carrying the load for processing social services with their outmoded ­legacy systems,” says Laura DiDio, ­principal of research firm ITIC. “These antiquated systems were overwhelmed, so they had to transform the technology and make a leap. AI has helped.”

Clark County Faces an Unprecedented Demand for Benefits 

While workers in many industries adapted to office shutdowns with ­portable devices and videoconferencing tools, those weren’t much help in Clark County.

“We live and die by hospitality in Las Vegas,” Burch says. “When you shut down the casinos, it doesn’t just affect the folks who work at the casinos. It’s the seven other jobs created by the ­casinos in the community.”

Clark County had been planning upgrades well before the pandemic. It uses IBM’s Cúram case management system and had been speaking with IBM about making it more of a ­forward- facing citizen-engagement ­portal. Those discussions became more concrete ­during the pandemic.

The system, which was built from July through October 2020, consists of two components, says Amy Wykoff, director of offering management at IBM Watson Health: the IBM Watson Health Citizen Engagement Platform, a portal that enables citizens to apply for CHAP benefits online; and the IBM Watson Assistant, an AI virtual agent that prescreens citizens to ensure they’re eligible for benefits.

“That kept a lot of unnecessary applications out of the system, which keeps unnecessary stress off the client,” Burch says.

The portal enables Clark County to dynamically create new types of programs. So, for instance, with each new stimulus package, it was able to easily input new benefit requirements into the system, Wykoff says.

2 million

The number of Americans at risk of eviction as a federal moratorium ends

Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2021,” June 2021

The platform is integrated with the county’s other 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, then to its SAP financial platform, says Sadish Kumar Venugopal, associate partner for ­government health and human ­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 apply for assistance,” Burch says. “You should be able to apply on your phone in under 15 minutes.”

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Tech Investments Improve Government Service Delivery

Clark County’s goal is to make data on its portal available across agencies and with nonprofit partners so that case workers can get a comprehensive view of clients’ needs.

“When people apply for our ­assistance, we want to be able to say, ‘Here are other things that you might be eligible for,’” Burch says. “At the end of the day, our citizens just know they need help. They don’t really care about who’s responsible for the grant or the program.”

The Illinois Department of Employment Security had a similar experience. The call volume in its ­contact center spiked, and while the Department of Innovation and Technology helped to implement a ­stopgap callback system, it was overwhelmed with its own challenges equipping newly remote employees and troubleshooting their issues.

Tim Burch, Human Services Administrator, Clark County, Nev.
At the end of the day, our citizens just know they need help. They don’t really care about who’s responsible for the grant or the program.”

Tim Burch Human Services Administrator, Clark County, Nev.

“It wasn’t until we got all of that done that we were able to pivot and say, ‘OK, let’s talk now about how we can help manage the demand that’s coming into these centers,’” says Jennifer Ricker, acting secretary and CIO of the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology.

The Illinois DoIT had been thinking about omnichannel approaches to how it serves the public, “but we were not there yet,” Ricker says. “The pandemic accelerated that for us.”

The agency purchased Google’s Contact Center AI solution and integrated it with Cisco’s Contact Center Enterprise platform, which they were already using. They upgraded to the Cisco Unified Customer Voice Portal, then added a chatbot to the website, which addressed 3 million inquiries in the first few weeks, Ricker says.

After adding virtual assistants, the agency began tapping the AI functionality to help the phone system learn to do more than just the scripted Q&A. “I think that will be the ultimate — being able to dip into the data and have real interactions with individuals about their cases,” Ricker says.'

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Photography by Joe Buglewicz