Buried in the recently redesigned OPM.gov website, retirees will find a polite little chatbot greeting them.
It doesn’t know everything about the status of your retirement, but it will prompt a few common questions about survivors’ benefits, which is the only topic it’s programmed to talk about — for now.
Guy Cavallo, chief information officer of the Office of Personnel Management, announced the chatbot is in limited use on Monday at the Government Information Technology Executive Council Conference being held this week in Annapolis, Maryland. OPM has been previously questioned by Congress about retirees’ waiting for months to get their annuities and being unable to get through the phones for help.
“When retirees contact their members of congress, our staff is directed to submit casework to a congressional portal which might as well be a blackbox,” said Arizona Republican Rep. Andy Biggs during a House oversight hearing last month. “Requests for updates on actual cases by email and phone go unreturned and our constituents feel like no one can help them.”
OPM receives and processes thousands of claims each month and has yet to meet its goal for cutting its inventory and shortening its average processing time.
“Capitol Hill is very interested in knowing what OPM is doing to improve a retiree or a soon-to-be retired federal employee’s experience,” said Cavallo at the conference.
The chatbot fielded about 50 questions and answers on Monday, he said. Getting more queries will help the office, and the bot, get a sense of what retirees need more information on.
“Supporting federal employees, retirees and their families is the most important mission we have,” said Erikka Knuti, spokesperson for OPM. “Piloting this early version of a retirement services chatbot is an opportunity to test and learn new service technology to improve our customer experience.”
The chatbot is one of several ways OPM hopes to make its services faster and more transparent. The office serves as the HR office for 2.1 million federal employees and another 1.9 million annuitants, thus handling myriad documents throughout a federal employee’s professional lifetime. Antiquated technology and workforce shortages have made retirement processing a particularly arduous process, and one that is ripe for automation.
The chatbot, once fully operational, aims to eliminate some of the volume of questions that OPM’s phone and email lines are flooded with. OPM did not give a timeline of when the bot will be able to answer a broader array of questions.
“Anything I can do to remove calls from the call center, which is our area that we need to improve the most at OPM, is worth that,” said Cavallo.
Knutti also said that the technology aims to free up OPM employees to answer more complex retirement questions that aren’t suited to generic answers from the bot.
Chatbots are a tool being used more and more by federal agencies, who have been charged by the White House via executive order to overhaul their customer service. The Department of Veterans Affairs rolled out a chatbot last year.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also has a chat service, cheerfully named “Emma,” that has been in place since 2018.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.