New York MTA expands info online

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

When New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to raise fees and reduce service last year to deal with a $3 billion budget deficit, the agency decided its finances weren't transparent enough to the public.

Officials decided to put that information on the authority's Web site and ask for e-mail feedback. By November 2002, MTA had about 4,000 electronic comments -- some "dicey and strident in tone," according to Douglas Sussman, MTA's community affairs director -- that became part of the official record for the budget's public hearing.

Using the Web site as a communication tool is vital for organizations like the MTA, which must do more with less in these economic times. The commuter rail organization has about 65,000 employees in five different agencies and serves about 5,000 square miles.

Even as the MTA dealt with budget problems, it decided to utilize the Web and e-mail to provide better and more interactive customer service. The process began in 2001, but it didn't really get started until summer 2002, when it hired Montana-based RightNow Technologies Inc., which provides knowledge management software to improve customer service.

With the company's software, the MTA in February started to roll out a system to provide better answers to frequently asked questions on its Web site rather than just providing phone numbers to call. Previously, the site even stated that some responses could take up to 15 business days on average, he said.

"We thought that having this type of knowledge base through customer e-mail would maximize use of the Web site, free up our employees, and allow people to basically self-serve and do things themselves," said Sussman.

A traditional knowledge management system is a manual process in which experts compile information, which takes a great deal of time and money, said Greg Gianforte, RightNow's founder and chief executive officer. Such information eventually becomes obsolete because there's no automatic method of keeping it updated, Gianforte said.

With RightNow's self-learning software, an organization starts with a seed of knowledge, such as 50 to 100 answers to frequently asked questions. If an answer isn't found, a customer can submit a question, which is routed to a customer service agent, who can propose that answer for publication on the Web. Information then gets organized -- not just on frequency of use, but how useful the information is.

This self-service approach helps organizations provide more information and help more people without adding staff, said Gianforte. "What we find is that when you implement a system and repetitive questions disappear, the job is much more challenging," he said, adding that 20 percent of questions asked require a personalized response.

MTA's still nascent knowledge management system stores every keyword search and even compensates for misspelled words, said Conrad Hardy, the organization's government and community relations associate. He said the system would also supplement answers with phone numbers and track correspondence.

When the system is fully implemented across all its agencies, Sussman said the headquarters can look across all the kinds of answers agencies are providing to further enhance consistent policies and communications.

That's important as the MTA is trying to restructure itself, possibly merging several commuter railroads. "This technology is going to be one of the mechanisms to bring together what are presently separate agencies," he said, adding that it's a "common denominator."


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