NYC's 311 system speeds calls for help

New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications

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New York City officials have seen a significant shift in call volume from the city's 911 emergency system since the launch of a nonemergency 311 service in early March.

The 311 Citizen Service Center is averaging 17,000 calls a day. "We expect that to go up to 30,000 calls once our marketing campaign is in full swing," said Gino Menchini, the city's chief information officer. "We've chosen to ratchet up our awareness so that we can better groom the call volume that we do have coming in and not get overloaded before we're prepared to do so."

The 311 initiative is an ambitious attempt to improve customer service in a city with about 14 pages of agency contact numbers in the phone book. Among all those numbers, 911 is the first to come to mind for most New Yorkers needng help, which is obviously an unnecessary distraction for emergency operators and a roundabout way for callers to get information.

The 311 centers should solve that problem. Within a few moments of dialing from landline or cell phones, New Yorkers can ask a live call center agent questions on nearly anything. The topics covered range from an agency's business hours to quality-of-life issues to pothole complaints to adoption services. The service is also available to callers outside New York City.

Menchini, who also heads the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT), said people now don't even have to know whether what they need is a city service or not. For example, if someone calls regarding a motor vehicle department issue, the call agent will transfer the person to a state department representative.

"New York kind of leapfrogged with 311 implementation and took it to the next level of integration," said Steve Hurst, a partner with Accenture, the prime contractor for the 311 initiative. The main component of the system is Siebel Systems Inc.'s call center technology and Interwoven Inc.'s content management tool.

So far about 12 city agencies have merged their call center operations into the new one, and another three will join the call center soon. The main facility has about 200 people on staff, with about 90 on hand during peak hours. A secondary facility, operated by a contractor, has another 200 people on staff, with about 60 staffing the peak shift, Hurst said.

Call center operators have access to a knowledge base that provides information on about 7,000 topics, accessible through keyword searches. A script guides agents through a series of questions and answers for every call. For example, a caller with a noise complaint would be transferred to the appropriate agency depending on where and when the noise occurs. Agents can refer callers, answer frequently asked questions or help fill out a form to track the request.

In the past, a noise complaint would be directed to the police department's quality-of-life hot line, a police precinct or another public safety agency.

"Now you call 311, they populate a form, it's automatically geocoded, we do address validation, address normalization, and we do a routing of that incident to the appropriate precinct based on location of the incident," Hurst said. A service request identification number is given to the caller, who will be contacted when the complaint is resolved. That helps the city track such services.

The number of other agencies' call centers that will be merged depends on the services they offer. "For example, we have tax consultants [who] sit through tax season. They're highly specialized and may spend as much as 30 minutes on a call. It might not make sense to bring them into our call center," Menchini said.

Through a contractor, the city even supplies interpretation services for 165 to 170 languages. An agent will dial an interpreter into a three-way conference call.

The 311 services were already in use in some major cities, such as Baltimore, Houston, Dallas and Chicago, before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the initiative in his inaugural address January 2002. DOITT representatives talked with oficials from several other cities about their services.

The first agency was consolidated into the new facility Oct. 1, fewer than nine months after Bloomberg's announcement. Menchini said the "extremely aggressive time frame" presented challenges but also kept everyone focused.

"New York's taken a very important first step through the creation of the 311 center," said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of PSComm LLC, who helped develop the concept back in the mid-1990s. He said the city's next challenges are to integrate its services with its forms and turn the mayor's management report into a management tool. He said another challenge will be to use the 311 service for homeland security by monitoring problems and sharing data.

Although 311's main thrust is make government more accessible, Hurst said the service will eventually enable many agencies to share data and possibly spot trends or developments. Such information can be geocoded and plotted on a map to see trouble spots. City officials also want the 311 system to be integrated into agencies' work order systems to better manage service delivery.

Some city council members, good governance advocates and community board leaders want DOITT to share 311 data with all of the entities that serve the city's residents. Councilwoman Gale Brewer introduced legislation last month that would require the mayor to post monthly reports online regarding complaints and requests for services received through the 311 system.

Although it's difficult to assess the incremental costs of the system, Menchini estimates the city has spent about $25 million to get 311 up and running. So far, it's saved the city some money by consolidating agency call centers. But in the long run, it will save the city millions more, he said.

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Dial 311

New York City's 311 Citizen Service Center provides access to all nonemergency city services.

The Citizen Service Center:

* Has live operators on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

* Eliminates the need to scan through more than 4,000 entries on 14 pages of the phone book.

* Can assist callers in 170 languages.

* Provides tracking numbers so callers can follow up on the status of their requests.

* Can be accessed from outside New York City by dialing (212) NEW YORK.

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