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September 13th, 2019

Authentication: The Key to Improving Citizen Experience and Reducing Fraud in Agency Call Centers

Federal agencies walk a narrow balancing act in their missions to serve citizens. They have to minimize waste, abuse, and fraud, and, increasingly, deliver a citizen experience on par with that offered by the private sector.

Recently, my colleague Bob McKay, senior vice president of Customer Identity and Risk Solutions at Neustar, shared on the Federal Tech Talk podcast how federal agencies could manage this balancing act more effectively with a new approach to authenticating citizens. 

Listen to the full episode.

Any discussion about serving citizens remotely—whether through a call center or a website—must start with a focus on citizen experience. Based on their interactions with private brands, citizens have come to expect experiences that are safe, and allow them to complete their tasks efficiently, whether it’s completing a transaction, getting some information, or resolving a specific conflict. They seek to complete analogous tasks with agencies, so they expect similar experiences. When they have a comparatively lesser experience, their overall confidence in the government dwindles.

Starting in 2014, federal agencies began a concerted effort to improve the experience of citizens reaching out for help. This revolutionary change in mindset holds the potential to elevate citizens’ trust in government above historic levels. As we’ll discuss later, this must be done efficiently and in a way that secures not only the agency and its work, but the data that it holds on behalf of the citizens it serves.

Across agencies, citizens seek resolution to their highest-urgency problems in the most expedient way possible; typically, a phone call. In that moment of need, agencies have an opportunity not only to provide service, but to earn trust by increasing their constituencies’ overall satisfaction. However, before they can get to the heart of the calling citizen’s need, they must confirm that the right caller is at the other end of the line.

Authentication essential to citizen experience

Fraudsters have little trouble impersonating honest citizens in an effort to steal benefits. Phone-number spoofing services—which have legitimate uses—are readily available, as is citizens’ personal information. For just a few dollars on the dark web, you can buy a citizen’s identity with a surprising level of detail. Fraudsters use that information to contact the Social Security Administration as, say, Scott Straub. They may try to get a benefit payment they aren’t entitled to, or they may try to get more sensitive information in order to commit crimes with other federal agencies or with private-sector brands.

For these reasons, modern caller authentication requires two layers of trust: first, confirm that the individual calling is who they say they are. Second, verify the call itself, and the citizen’s calling device. 

This approach improves the citizen experience because it can prevent criminals from using stolen phones or stolen identities to misappropriate everything from a VA benefit check, to a tax return, to a social security payment.

Relationship between authentication and citizen experience

Compounding the challenge for federal agencies’ call centers, citizens’ contact information changes frequently. On any given month, between 5% and 15% of an organization’s CRM go out of date. Within a year, up to 60% of the data may be out of sync. When people change their phone carriers, their addresses, their names, and other personal information, it’s unlikely that they notify all organizations with which they do business—including federal agencies.

When citizens ‘knock on the front door’ of an agency’s call center, they expect to be allowed in and served quickly. They don’t want to be kept waiting at the doorstep while they’re challenged to verify their identities. This is a rich area of opportunity. If agencies can optimize that initial experience for their callers, and get to the heart of resolving their inquiries faster, they will raise citizen satisfaction and trust.

Safe, speedy authentication complements Government’s other priorities

This mandate to improve citizen experience comes on top of the traditional imperatives to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. I would argue that caller authentication holds the promise to improve on all of those metrics.

Shaving off the average 30 seconds of the call time spent on authentication reduces the costs to service calls, but also increases the number of citizens that a contact center can serve. There's even the possibility for greater IVR containment. When architected well, many common questions can be answered programmatically, saving only the hardest questions for agents. In the private sector, that has resulted in up to an 80% reduction in the amount of human-based calls that are required. That level of efficiency gain is available to federal agencies.

What about the digital channel?

We can’t discuss efficiency without acknowledging websites, mobile apps, and other digital points of interaction. As more ‘digital natives’ come of age, more citizens prefer this option, as do federal agencies. It’s a more efficient way to handle a broader number of citizens and their needs.

The same dilemma arises: can agencies authenticate the citizen seeking a digital resolution? Here, the task is to validate the person, his device, and, of great importance, his location. Regarding the device, specific information gets passed in the digital interaction with the browser: information about the device in use; its IP address; the SIM card, if it’s a smartphone; and so on. Through Neustar's marketing analytics business we can understand the interactions that the device has had with other websites in recency. That allows for a sort of triangulation through IP addresses. Let me explain.

I live at one specific address and, most of the time, work at another specific addresses. I carry two mobile phones with me on weekdays. They, along with my tablet and work laptop, tend to come with me over the course of a typical day. If the geolocation of one of those devices visiting a federal agency’s website is reasonably close to the device’s normal ‘orbit,’ then it’s less of a risk. (Side note: This is how federal agencies can provide citizens with an omnichannel experience—right now.) By connecting people, devices and locations, a rich spectrum of data points emerges; one that offers to help eliminate a lot of friction for citizens in real time, but also diffuse the possibility that there's a fraudster on the other side of an interaction.

Bottom line: better authentication benefits citizen experience, efficiency and fraud fighting

In the private sector, if you reduce friction and increase service for consumers, profits increase. With a federal agency, reducing friction safely reduces costs and improves service. Any improvement that federal agencies make to the efficiency of their caller authentication approach will naturally benefit the citizen experience, too.

For a deeper dive, please download this white paper: Federal Contact Centers: Achieve a Positive Citizen Experience, Agency Operational Efficiency, and Fraud Mitigation

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