Organized for service
Minneapolis residents often complained that the city took too much time to clean up graffiti after it was reported to the police. So, as part of the plan to implement its 311 non-emergency calling system, officials set out to improve graffiti response.
The problem was surprisingly easy to fix. The police, who had more pressing criminal activity to handle, used to receive the complaints from residents. However, before they could turn over the requests to the Public Works Department, the police had to investigate and take photos. As a result, the average cleanup could take two or three weeks.
With the 311 system, public works is notified immediately, and crews photograph the vandalism with digital cameras before cleaning up the mess. The pictures go to the police, and residents no longer have to look at graffiti. "We laid out a process using 311 that removed the bottleneck," says John Dejung, director of the city's 911/311 communications department.
Communities large and small are combining 311 non-emergency phone systems with re-engineering and customer relationship management (CRM) software to improve services at a time when local government budgets are under severe financial constraints. "311 systems are where 911 systems were in the '60s and '70s," says Cory Fleming, who directed a comprehensive study of the programs for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). "They are on the crest."
THE PREFERRED OPTION
The ICMA study, "Customer Service and 311/CRM Technology in Local Governments: Lessons on Connecting with Citizens," documents the growing use of centralized customer service systems and the increasing interest in implementing them in the nation's communities. In fact, almost 15 percent of the nation's local governments already have a system, according to a sample survey from ICMA. Communities ranging from Bethel, Ark., (population 6,356) to New York City (population 8,214,426) have adopted some form of 311 service, according to the study.
Even more revealing is that another 27 percent of the respondents from communities with more than 25,000 residents say they are considering the systems, with cost and uncertain benefits cited as the main obstacles to moving forward. "Governments are doing a lot of cost-benefit analysis," Fleming says. "But once [311 systems] are implemented, it's not something that citizens let the community give up. There are cost savings. Things get done."
The 311 number is part of a series of abbreviated dialing arrangements the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside in 1992. In 1997, the FCC specifically set aside 311 for non-emergency police and other governmental services. While 911 is a required service in every community for emergency police services, the 311 system is optional.
Although a community does not have to use a CRM system as part of its 311 implementation, CRM is almost always incorporated into the project. However, some communities install a CRM system without the 311 phone service.
STARTING OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT
The benefits of CRM/311 often show up before the system is turned on, as the community prepares itself for a new way of doing business. Whereas residents previously had to guess which department would handle a concern, the centralized call-in number forces the government to figure out the right process and provide customer service representatives with the correct information to handle the problem quickly.
Experiences with the systems have varied widely, according to the ICMA report. For example, in Los Alamos County, N.M., the 311 Customer Care Center actually receives a large amount of walk-in service requests. About 40 percent of all requests are handled that way, and because those contacts take longer, the average call handling time is longer than in other communities that receive most requests over the phone or online.
In San Antonio, the same department that handles the call center manages five community centers throughout the city, where residents can drop in to conduct business or obtain information about city services and programs. Because the centers are not part of the central site, the actual number of contacts as measured by the phone system may be underrepresented.
As part of its program, San Antonio adopted service level agreements (SLA) four years after implementing its 311 system to define timeframes for completing local government departments' tasks. Many governments incorporate SLAs into their programs so they can measure whether they are providing service at expected levels, identify problem areas and make adjustments. The ICMA report says that SLAs offer a type of "early warning system" of potential problems in the local governments' service offerings.
Minneapolis began working on implementing its 311 system two years before its actual opening, and from the start, city leaders established goals of improving accountability and resident service, Dejung says. Minneapolis officials found a lot of room for change. One department literally was keeping its records for sidewalk repair in a cigar box, and residents had seven different ways to request traffic barriers for their streets. Not to mention, the city phone book included 270 phone numbers for city services. If a resident called the wrong one, the call was passed to the department that the call-taker thought was correct — and perhaps passed on again. There was no way for the city to know if the individual's request for service was completed to the resident's satisfaction. "Now we have a better use of resources," Dejung says. "The citizen's request starts a process with a work order."
During its analysis, the city identified 500 most frequently requested types of service, and those were pared down to 180 service requests for the 311 call center. Each request was committed to a flow diagram and streamlined, and department managers worked together to develop the most efficient procedures. "We tweaked the system," Dejung says. "There were very few [procedures] that were left as is."
The city established a "best practice" objective of 80 percent first-call resolution of city requests, which it has met in the three years since it has gone live. It has found that almost 70 percent of the calls are requests for information, which the system handles with a knowledge base that is easily accessible by the operators. Most requests for service are for patching potholes, repairing streetlights and rounding up loose dogs.
The system has seen widespread acceptance, having grown from 330,000 calls the first year to more than 450,000 calls in its third year. Dejung says that the city is seeing increasing use of a self-service option, in which residents either complete their service request online or send an email. The city now receives more than 25,000 emails annually. Its annual budget for 311 is $2.8 million and employs 34 people for service from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Monday through Friday.
911 DEMAND IS LOWERED
Many cities find 311 appealing because it can help reduce calls into emergency 911 centers. Dejung, who manages both systems, says that 911 calls were reduced by about 16 percent after implementing Minneapolis's 311 call center. "It's been a helpful drop," he says. "The 911 center can concentrate on emergency calls. The gateway is working."
The implementation included definitions of the types of calls that 311 and 911 operators should handle and those that should be passed to their counterparts. Today, Dejung says, very few calls coming into either center need to be transferred. "We undertook a business process mapping so that we could understand the process between 311 and 911," he says. "It's an ongoing education for the community."
The ICMA study found that communities with 311 have more productive emergency services, either because of redirecting non-emergency calls to 311 or moving non-emergency functions from police into other departments, like the graffiti example in Minneapolis. "It's getting police officers more involved in crime prevention rather than taking in non-emergency calls," Fleming says. "Cities want them out on the street rather than filling out forms."
Cities look to more than just 911 savings when they are deciding whether to install the systems, which can involve hiring personnel, and installing hardware and extensive software. Communities are evaluating what kind of return they will receive for their investment. "Governments have to perform a cost-benefit analysis," Fleming says, noting that her study includes a sample of the types of questions that need to be asked. While direct cost savings need to be evaluated, she says communities also need to consider the "intangible" benefits of greater resident satisfaction. "They see their tax dollars at work," she says.
Many communities are studying ways to make the systems more affordable, including sharing services with nearby jurisdictions. In addition, there are a number of new versions of CRM software that are aimed at small communities, Fleming says.
Fleming has begun the second phase of the ICMA study, which includes an inventory of CRM/311 data reports, online discussion forums and ways of measuring resident satisfaction and engagement with 311 before and after system implementation. The work is designed to foster the integration of 311 and CRM in local government. "With more information, more resources and more tools coming all the time," she says, "[CRM/311] will spread across the country as the 911 systems did."
Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.
- Bellevue, Wash., 311 ensures city sends consistent messages
- Chicago CRM cuts through big city bureaucracy
- Early adopter, Hampton, Va., earns residents' high praise
311 resources for local government
Several organizations are working together to promote the use of and serve as a resource on centralized customer service systems — such as 311 call centers, CRM systems and online service requests — and to improve local government service delivery and performance: Rutgers University's Public Performance Measurement and Reporting Network, 311 Community of Practice; International City/County Management Association; The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies; and Public Technology Institute. Throughout the year, each will be conducting studies, presenting seminars and offering guidance to local governments in using 311 and CRM systems. For more information and for a copy of the ICMA study, visit www.icma.org/311.
311 ENSURES CITY SENDS CONSISTENT MESSAGES
Jurisdiction: Bellevue, Wash.
Agency: Chief Information Officer
Vendor: Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft
Before Bellevue, Wash., launched its 311 phone number, online and interactive voice system, officials made sure that all city information was organized and consistent for residents. "We saw this as an opportunity to begin to aggregate lots of information into a significant database with the ability to update the information as it changes," says Toni Cramer, Bellevue chief information officer. "We wanted to reach a new level of consistency in the information provided."
In March, residents will be able to make and track service requests via an online portal day or night, seven days a week. City employees have been working with the system since November.
Bringing residents into the online system will complete the first three phases of a planned five-phase process. Initially, in 2005, the city opened a kiosk in the city hall lobby with staff to answer residents' questions. Other phases of the program will integrate the data management system with the city's interactive voice system. Eventually, the city plans to tie its knowledge base into a regional system that could be shared with smaller communities.
Cramer believes that the city's $500,000 investment will provide more efficient service for the community's residents, eliminate redundancies in city systems and allow city employees to spend more time on their jobs rather than answering questions. "It's a long-term investment and is considered part of our investment portfolio," she says. "We hope to give better service, more consistency and an expansion of hours available to our citizens."
CRM CUTS THROUGH BIG CITY BUREAUCRACY
Agency: 311 City Services
Vendor: Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola
With its harsh winters and hot summers, Chicago receives more than 100,000 reports annually of pavement damage. Unfortunately, residents in 2005 had to wait 11 days or more for repairs, even for the most serious cave-ins.
Using a 311 and CRM system, city officials streamlined the response to pothole reports and now can easily identify the incidents that need immediate attention. After a year of the new procedures, the response time to the most serious pavement damage was reduced to two days or less.
Often called the "granddaddy" of CRM/311 systems, Chicago will mark 10 years of CRM use this year. The system handles more than 4.5 million calls a year and has changed how the city works. "Chicago took the effort over two years to test and retest," says Phillip Hampton, director of 311 services. "The mayor made the decision to take a full dive by every department. There was no other alternative. Department heads couldn't hold on to the old way of doing things."
Hampton attributes the success of the program to the commitment of Richard Daley, the city's mayor, who decided that the system would be "enterprise wide." "If it's not enterprise wide, how do you insure that the data is accurate when you're using different systems?" Hampton asks. "Everybody has to be playing by the same rules."
Hampton works with all city departments to make sure employees understand how to analyze the data and use reports to improve services. Each department has a liaison with the 311 group to improve information flow. In addition, Hampton's department makes sure that the data is accurate.
Heading into the next decade, Hampton sees the city moving CRM/311 into Web 2.0, with easier access for residents and more use of images by city workers. "As city resources deplete, the city has to make wise use of the resources it has," he says of the difficult economic times ahead. "We have to make an effort to show local government can work."
EARLY ADOPTER EARNS RESIDENTS' HIGH PRAISE
Jurisdiction: Hampton, Va.
Agency: City Manager's Office
Vendor: Bethesda, Md.-based Lagan
Though it is one of the smallest communities with a 311 and CRM system, Hampton, Va., has more years of experience with a non-emergency call center than most cities. When the southern Virginia city of 145,000 residents implemented its 311 system in 1999, only six or seven other communities had a centralized service, says Elizabeth Nisley, 311 system director. She admits the initial system was primitive. "It was mostly for customer service and not for citizen relationship management," she says. "If a call came in, we had to switch from computer to computer to log in the request. We knew it wouldn't work for the long run."
By 2006, the city was running its own system-wide CRM software, which allowed it to connect with the offices handling the services, manage customer requests and include a knowledge base to help operators answer questions. "Sixty to 70 percent of calls are for information, not services," she says.
Still, the initiative from the start was aimed at establishing SLAs, which identify how much time each department expects it will need to handle a specific type of request. "We wanted to set customer expectations," she says. "We didn't know whether what we were doing was right or wrong. We were just going to try."
The result over the years has been "absolutely wonderful," she says. Most of the users — 94 percent — routinely rate the service very good or excellent
Despite budget issues because of the economy, Nisley argues that the 311 system will help the city long term because residents are confident that their potholes will get fixed. "Taxpayers have to believe they are getting a bang for their buck," she says.