Helping residents help themselves
Driving home at 2 a.m., a resident who works the second shift passes a building that has been newly desecrated with graffiti. Shortly after, he pulls into his driveway only to discover his trash was never picked up that day. And, at 3 a.m., while still wide awake, he suddenly remembers the water bill is due. While he would like to report the problems and pay that pesky bill right away, and his city has an easy-to-remember 311 system for calling about such matters, its hours of operation end at 11 p.m.
Never fear. The computer is here.
New York may have long ago earned the title as the city that never sleeps, but in today's busy 24/7 society, that description can be applied just about everywhere. Recognizing that work does not just get done between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. anymore, many customer-service-oriented cities have created Web-based service request systems to make local government accessible any time of the day or night.
Tying into existing software
Minneapolis launched a 311 service with integrated customer relationship management (CRM) software by Bethesda, Md.-based Lagan in January 2006, and one year later, it introduced the online complement to the system. With that addition, residents now can report a variety of issues, such as potholes or code violations, by either calling a live agent who asks a series of questions that the city department resolving the issue will need to know, or by logging on to the city Web site to describe the problem. Customers using the online service are prompted to answer the same series of questions the live agents ask, and the responses are funneled through the same CRM system as in the live operations. However, whereas the live 311 agents can answer questions and log service requests for any city department, online service requests are limited to functions of the Public Works Department until the city can add the rest.
Residents who use the online system can include electronic images of the problems with the service requests. “People carry digital cameras or have those capabilities on their cell phones, and our system lets them attach photographs of the problems they are reporting,” says 311 Manager Don Stickney. He says the city receives many pictures of graffiti and nuisance complaints, like bent stop signs, attached to online requests. “It really helps the city in the enforcement process,” he says.
A dialed-in community
Unlike Minneapolis, Santa Clarita, Calif., does not maintain a 311 information number, managing phone calls through a main switchboard. However, it has an e-service request system that was developed by city staff for residents to use at any time. The e-service has been growing in popularity since it launched in 2005, says Kevin Tonoian, the city's technology service manager.
When residents sign up to use the e-service, they must register their name, phone and e-mail addresses. They then receive an account they can use to check the status of service requests. Santa Clarita collects all e-service requests in a database to track patterns and find service gaps. “[It] will also allow us to build in standardized responses, not so much form letters, but consistent messages to the public,” Tonoian says.
The city has begun moving from its internally developed system to one that has greater tracking capabilities from Pleasanton, Calif.-based Government Outreach. “When you step back and look at the big picture, [e-government is] another tool to help us bridge the service gap with our residents,” Tonoian says.
An ensemble piece
Denver launched its 311/CRM system in July 2007 as part of “Denver's Front Door” initiative to offer multiple ways to access local government information and services. Components in the ensemble of technologies include the 311 call center, the DenverGov.org Web site, and Denver 8 municipal television. When residents register on DenverGov.org, they can find voting locations, learn about property values, or gather crime statistics. They also can register for recycling services and request e-mail reminders of pickups.
Residents who want to initiate a service request on the Web site are introduced to a page of frequently asked questions on topics such as street maintenance or animal control. Using the self-help program from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle's PeopleSoft Enterprise system, residents can open a case, producing a service ticket that is funneled into the queue in the city's call center. Or, they can e-mail their problem directly to an agent who can reply directly or forward it to the appropriate department. Residents also can share their opinions about the e-service through an online survey.
While Director of 311 Operations Michael Majors says the city has found the online product to be efficient, the number of people submitting online requests has been limited because users must register their name, phone, e-mail address or physical address. “We're finding people are conservative about giving out that information,” he says. And, while residents can register as “anonymous,” they cannot check specific cases.
Presently, Denver's self-help online request system accounts for approximately 1 to 2 percent of all service requests, Majors says, and the city's goal is to increase it to at least 10 to 15 percent by making the product more easily navigable as well as marketing the service more aggressively.
An eye on the bottom line
While cities often promote 311 as “the face of the city,” and many residents use the service to speak directly with government employees, online service requests are far less expensive than live operators. When Chattanooga, Tenn., analyzed the cost of its 311/CRM system from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, it found that requests to live agents cost the city an average $7 to $9 per call, while Web-based requests averaged approximately 15 cents each. Denver reported a cost of $2.80 per live call in 2007 and an estimated 30 to 50 cents for online requests.
To keep staffing under control, Chattanooga has tried — with limited success — to both boost customer interest in online service requests and to find targeted audiences for an interactive voice recognition system for some incoming calls. An important piece of the puzzle, says Chief Information Officer Mark Keil, is designing a self-service Web-based program that is easy for users to maneuver. If they come out of the experience satisfied that their problem has been resolved, they will be more willing to use the online request system again. “A person is already irate when they call with a complaint, so you don't want to play any communication judo with them,” he says.
Chattanooga ran into a roadblock with online requests, in part because it found that residents who frequently report neighborhood problems are uncomfortable using computers. “Cell phones have also definitely outmaneuvered the Web,” says Keil, explaining that residents with cell phones can easily dial 311 immediately when they have a concern.
While online service requests remain a minor part of Chattanooga's Web-based activities, Keil says residents are more frequently paying parking tickets, property taxes and park reservation fees through the city's site. Keil hopes to have 3 to 4 percent of the service requests generated through the Web. Just as stores offer discounts for buying online, Chattanooga is developing incentives to encourage residents to use its e-service.
What's in store for the future
For residents who are comfortable with the Web but who still might want some live assistance, Minneapolis has just launched an online chat function that connects them with a 311 agent. The new service may help determine which difficulties residents may encounter with the self-servicing options.
Santa Clarita plans to develop a mobile version of the city's Web site so residents with smart phones — cell phones with Internet access — can more easily find information on the city site and receive text alerts and Web feeds.
Presently, Denver is considering revamping its Web site to more prominently feature answers to commonly asked questions instead of only on the 311 self-help portal. It also plans to develop more Web self-service topics, adding subcategories to the top 10 to 20 most popular ones.
“No city can ever truly say they are finished and that they have everything they need,” Major says. “It's a constantly evolving process.”
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.