Promotion ahead for Alex, IP Australia and ATO's virtual assistant?

​Meet Alex, one of the hardest working public servants in Australia. Soon she may have even more to do.

Meet Alex, one of the hardest working public servants in Australia. She does 24 hour shifts at two federal agencies without so much as a coffee break and will never put you on hold.

She may lack a sense of humour but she’s a fast learner. She’s impressed her bosses so much, promotion is as good as guaranteed. She may soon be the face of online services across government.

After starting her public service career with the Australian Tax Office in September last year, virtual assistant (VA) Alex is now three months into her job with IP Australia. Currently answering customer queries about trade marks, next month the VA will be launched across the intellectual property agency’s patents, designs and plant breeder’s rights sections as well.

“We did have website capability, we also had call centre capability to assist customers,” explains Robert Bollard, general manager of IP Australia’s business transformation and ICT program ‘RIO’. “But what we really are looking to do as part of our digital strategy is to keep people in that digital channel and to service them on a 24/7 basis. People don’t want to engage with us from nine to five. They really want to be able to do their business any time.

“The majority are Australian small to medium sized enterprises, who have never navigated the IP system before. Those people are busy: they don’t have time to learn about each aspect of setting up a business. We wanted to make that journey as easy and as simple as possible and give them the right information to make the right decisions.”

'Hello. I'm here to help you'

Alex is part of a digital transformation taking place at the agency called RIO or Rights in One. It aims to unify the processing across the four IP rights areas, make them more customer-centric and efficient and eventually will mean bespoke legacy systems can be decommissioned. Key to its success is moving more customer transactions online.

In 2012, only 12 per cent of the agency’s 800,000 annual service requests were made online. Now, Bollard says, approximately 99 per cent are.

“From our perspective, having 99 per cent of our customers online is an incredibly powerful platform to use smart tech to assist them, to be more effective, and provide much better business outcomes for them,” Bollard says.

Read more: It's time to future-proof Australia's copyright laws for the 21st century

Although only in operation for a few months, Alex has led to a 10 per cent reduction in calls to the agency call centre compared with the same period last year.

Alex’s domain is being expanded. Shortly the VA will appear on correspondence from the agency and will soon be available within its eservices portal.

“Once we get into the authenticated space we’ll be able to provide much more targetted information and assistance to customer, based upon their features,” says Bollard. “It’s about this holistic digital experience. Over time the VA is evolving to help humanise the experience our customers have.”

Robert Bollard, IP Australia's general manager RIO program and business futures
Robert Bollard, IP Australia's general manager RIO program and business futures

Face of the future

It seems likely that Alex will pop up on other government websites in coming months, and may one day be able to offer information from all agencies.

“We’re working very hard on trying to work with other government agencies and maybe some others to move to a much more citizen-centric approach to the way that Alex works. The whole of government is a vision in the future,” says Bollard.

“Often websites in organisations and even VAs will just focus on the particular transactions of the agency that you’re dealing with. So we want the VA not only to talk about things that might happen in IP Australia but potentially be able to hand off other information which will assist citizens on their journeys.

“If we can be an innovator early and demonstrate the value that this tool has, and I think we’re already seeing that, it will be a compelling case for others to adopt the same technology.”

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Tags patentsICTintellectual propertyATOfederal governmentAustralian Tax Officeshared servicesIP Australiagovernment agenciesvirtual assistantalex

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