STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | MAY 2018
A Live Chat Feature on the Legislature’s Website Helps Shrink Alaska’s Vast Distances
By Tim Powers
The Alaska Legislature is always looking for new ways to remove physical distance as a barrier to legislative participation and reach constituents who may live as far away from Juneau, the state capital, as Sioux Falls, S.D., is from Washington, D.C.
For the 2017 session, the Legislature added a live-chat customer service feature to its website. Most of you are familiar with the idea. It’s like calling a store about a product or calling your phone carrier about your bill, except you type or text back and forth rather than talk.
In the Legislative Information Office, we wondered, “Can we offer legislative information through a chat service?” The answer has been a resounding “yes.” Alaskans chatted 2,290 times with us in the first year, and use continues to grow. This year through mid-March, we’ve counted more than 700 incoming chats.
When constituents visit the akleg.gov website, the chat box appears in the lower right-hand corner asking, “Questions? Chat with LIO staff.” Clicking on the link opens a window where visitors can type in questions, which ring through to our legislative information staff computers, alerting us to an incoming request. Staff can chat with several information seekers at once and, when unsure of an answer, consult with colleagues through private communication channels. For questions that require in-depth research, the chat tool lets us create tickets so we can follow up after the initial inquiry.
The chat feature has increased the Legislature’s accessibility to constituents, and it took only a few hours to set up. It involved creating an account with a free messaging app (there are several; we used tawk.to) and placing a few lines of code onto the website. The look and feel of the chat window is customizable, and you can choose the hours when it will be available. We decided on 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
In Alaska, there are enough nonpartisan staff to handle the incoming chat requests as part of their daily workload. The Legislative Library staff help with requests that require looking at offline historical materials.
In the rare cases when users post inappropriate comments, we can ban their IP addresses. After more than a year, we have found site visitors’ reactions to be overwhelmingly positive. They value the near-instant feedback they receive to their questions.
Alaska’s use of technology to engage with constituents is nothing new. One of the Legislature’s great challenges is that the state spans more than 660,000 square miles, constituting approximately 20 percent of the U.S. land mass. Travel to Juneau—which is inaccessible by road—can be expensive and time consuming for many of the state’s 750,000 residents. Barrow, on the northern coast, for example, is 1,098 miles from Juneau in the south.
The Legislature addressed this challenge in the 1970s by launching the Legislative Information Office network, which now comprises 23 statewide offices offering nonpartisan support to remote constituents. The network’s staff oversee a teleconferencing service that allows constituents to testify during committee meetings via a home telephone or from one of the regional network offices. Nearly 20,000 callers presented more than a million minutes of testimony in 2017.
We look forward to expanding our use of teleconferencing and emerging communication tools like live chat to help shorten the distance between Alaskans and their Legislature.
—Tim Powers manages information and teleconferencing for the Alaska Legislature.
Are You Innovating?
State Legislatures are constantly exploring ways to be more effective and to strengthen the legislative institution. Do you have a success story to share? Chances are good your idea can be applied in other states. Email Brian Weberg.