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New Mexico delivers customer-obsessed human services programs powered by AWS

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One out of every two people living in New Mexico is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, or both. That’s one of the highest rates in the US. The state’s Human Services Department (HSD) manages a budget of $7 billion of state and federal funds as it works to transform the lives of 800,000 low-income New Mexicans. Shanita Harrison is HSD’s customer innovation director, a role created in 2020.

After 17 years in the field and an extended stint as the business lead on all of HSD’s IT projects, Harrison and her then-deputy secretary believed that New Mexicans needed a tech advocate. The advocate would make sure online government services were as good as anything residents found in the private sector. Harrison’s tenure as customer innovation director has focused on three key service delivery touchpoints: HSD’s consolidated customer service center, their unified portal, and their one-stop shop (coming this year).

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, New Mexico—like many states—had to rapidly scale innovative practices in order to navigate uncertain times. For example, state employees, including contact center workers, had to pack up their desks immediately. Since HSD’s contact centers all operated from centralized locations, that meant nobody would be around to answer the phone when residents called. HSD needed a new way to deliver contact center services safely and found it with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Using Amazon Connect, a cloud-based, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered contact center, HSD scaled to meet demand and enabled workers to answer people’s questions from their homes.

“Sometimes when people need services, they’re in the worst time of their lives. Their child is sick, they haven’t eaten in a couple of days, maybe they’re unhoused,” said Harrison. “We were able to move to AWS, to Connect, basically overnight. It was awesome.”

A basic Connect implementation addressed New Mexico’s immediate COVID pain points, but the HSD team didn’t stop with the basics. After implementing their new contact center, they consolidated 150 phone numbers into two—one for customers, one for providers. Then, with the time they saved managing numbers, they turned their attention to new outreach channels: chat, text, and email.

Exploring these new channels was an iterative process rooted in thinking big and starting small. For instance, HSD tackled texting by starting with one use case: uploading eligibility reports to Amazon Pinpoint in order to proactively notify residents about the status of their benefits applications. Once they were confident in their approach, the team scaled fast. Today, HSD’s texting campaigns are more sophisticated than ever.

“All of these [campaigns] have a virtual portion,” said Harrison. “They all use AI or automated responses, so people get the message. What we have to communicate is life-saving information. If your bank can text you or Amazon can call when your package arrives, it’s important we can, too.”

Harrison credits data as the reason programs like these have become so effective so quickly.

“We’re 100 percent data-driven. We look at the amount of texts we send out compared to the percentage returned. We look at returned mail compared to what we’ve sent out to see if we’re making an impact there,” said Harrison. A customer feedback group also helps the agency figure out what they do well, where they need to adapt their approach, and what’s still needed.

Having these sophisticated systems in place allowed New Mexico to seamlessly transition during the public health emergency (PHE) unwinding, avoiding some of the problems and pitfalls other states experienced during the reverification process.

“We have proactive text messaging with an embedded chatbot so customers can update or confirm their address. Lots of reminders about when things are due,” said Harrison. HSD is also exploring sentiment analysis on calls that can gauge callers’ moods and help build agents who are more sensitive to spotting when calls go south.

Not many states have customer innovation directors, so Harrison is frequently asked for advice. First, she recommends thinking big. “A lot of times we get stuck on the no. But our customers lose out when we don’t keep imagining,” said Harrison.

Harrison also tells people to pair enthusiasm with a healthy respect for the work required to innovate.

“Bureaucracy is tough. Do you want to talk about generative AI or write an Advanced Planning Document (APD)? If you don’t write the APD, you can’t do any of the cool generative AI stuff,” said Harrison.

Next, she recommends a deep and regular practice of centering beneficiaries. Her team relies on a robust customer feedback loop with live surveys on all channels and ongoing focus groups. By using public voices as a guide, HSD can zero in on what they need to fix and find successful approaches that can scale.

The voices do double duty, too: they help everyone at HSD remember why their work is worth doing.

“Some of these jobs are hard,” said Harrison. “You’re fighting with vendors, trying to figure out solutions, trying to advocate for customers. But then you get a comment that says, ‘This was so easy, I needed to cry. You saved my life today.'”

Discover how government agencies across the country use AWS to better serve constituents at the AWS Cloud for Health and Human Services hub.

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