Dial 311

311 service is e-government with a different name

Lessons for 311 success

1. Pick the right 311 system.

2. Plan for growth.

3. Manage change.

4. Don't be a victim of success.

5. Pace yourself.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Feb. 6, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

When Minneapolis officials built their 311 call center, they knew that most of the citizen requests coming in would be fairly routine. However, when a I-35W interstate bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in August 2007, the center’s job was anything but ordinary.

“I think we proved in this event just how significant a contribution 311 can make during a disaster, whether it’s an isolated event or ongoing,” said Don Stickney, call center manager for Minneapolis 311. “We were able to take care of things that are important for people to know — personal things, unusual requests.”

Whether it was telling a man whose fiancée was on the bridge where the injured victims were taken or advising commuters on the best routes around the collapsed span, the 311 center handled requests that otherwise would have flooded busy police and fire departments.

Similar reasons are what originally prompted officials in Albuquerque, N.M., to create their 311 call center.

“A large part of our call volume was nonemergency, including people calling 911 to ask: ‘What is your nonemergency number?’ ” said Brian Osterloh, the city’s applications development manager for customer relationship management (CRM) and business intelligence.

However, Albuquerque officials discovered that 311 offers much more than an easy-to-remember phone number. By integrating call-center technology with CRM software, Web search tools, business intelligence, geographic information systems and work-order management systems, the city now provides the citizen services that governments have long tried to offer through e-government initiatives.

“Our 311 system has been a great driver for change within city government,” Osterloh said.

One example is graffiti removal, a service that costs Albuquerque taxpayers more than $1 million each year. Even with 311 available for people to report new graffiti, the clean-up was taking four days, well beyond the mayor’s goal of one day.

However, by analyzing call data, incident locations and administrative processes, department officials were able to fine-tune its response and remove graffiti less than a day after it was reported.

“And they’re doing that without any more personnel or financial resources,” Osterloh said.

Basic 311 lines first appeared in the late 1990s, but easier integration with other applications and success stories such as Albuquerque’s have recently spurred municipalities to jump on the 311 bandwagon.

Officials who have deployed 311 systems say factors such as upfront planning and organizational change management are equally important for a system’s success. And other factors can contribute.

Pick the right system
Hampton, Va., established its first 311 system in September 1999. But within months, Call Center Manager Elizabeth Nisley knew that the solution was completely wrong and that the city would eventually have to replace it.

“It was user-hostile,” Nisley said. “It couldn’t interface with all of our back-end systems, so either my staff would have to manipulate several software programs to send through service requests, or the departments themselves would end up doing double- entry into their asset management systems.”

After searching for several years, Nisley found a system designed for public-sector organizations. The city selected Lagan 311, a public sector-focused platform that could integrate easily with the city’s work order and maintenance management system.

For a system to be successful, a 311 solution and its foundational CRM application must be robust and highly scalable, Nisley said. Another feature that shouldn’t be overlooked is the ability to script services with minimal training.

“Because the call center is t e front line for multiple businesses where information, policies and procedures can change minute by minute, you don’t want to have to rely on the information technology department to program or configure services,” Nisley said.

Plan for growth In addition to selecting the right 311 system, public agencies should have a long-term plan that identifies the system’s funding and lays a foundation for expanding the system, said Molly Rauzi, Denver’s chief information officer.

“It’s important to take the time to do a lot of things right during the prelaunch,” Rauzi said. Those steps include appointing a project manager, setting up a steering committee of department managers, analyzing the workflow procedures of each participating agency and creating a road map for adding new functions and services.

Denver’s 311 system offered automated integration with only a few partner agencies when the city government created it in July 2006. Then officials began adding new agencies as they completed a business analysis and integrated their back-end business systems.

Manage change
Because of the integration and procedural changes 311 call centers require, they cause significant culture change in organizations, Osterloh said. Officials should prepare to deal with resistance by ensuring they have high-level executive support and user involvement.

For example, Albuquerque officials had the mayor’s support.

Nevertheless, Albuquerque’s Osterloh hired a change manager to help bring departmental employees onboard. That manager established organizational change teams and met with as many users and departmental directors as possible.

“They would tell her concerns that they wouldn’t tell me,” said Osterloh, the project manager. “She was a liaison, a sympathetic ear.”

Don’t be a victim of success
Citizen requests for services can skyrocket after a city creates a 311 system, so be prepared, said Minneapolis’ Stickney.

The “311 [service]makes it so easy for people to get hold of the city that you’re going to have more people calling you than you ever did before,” Stickney said. “That can translate into a tremendous — and overwhelming — impact.”

Departments must be prepared for an increased workload, Stickney said. Project officials should work with departments to prepare the appropriate business analysis ahead of time. Officials should also identify which process improvements will enable new efficiencies.

To avoid being victims of success, agencies also should try to manage citizen expectations. For example, Denver officials recognized that the worst thing that could happen would be to have citizens waiting in a queue because of staffing shortfalls or because a CRM application wasn’t up to the task, said Mike Major, Denver’s 311 call center manager.

“That would leave a very bad flavor with people,” he said.

To guard against that type of public relations disaster, Major said, the city quietly launched the system six months before the official launch date. The 311 center selected five departments as partners to study their call metrics and reports. The purpose was to test the CRM application and determine whether planned staffing models could handle the length and number of calls expected.

Pace yourself
Installing 311 call centers does not happen quickly. “You don’t implement 311, go live and be done with it,” Stickney said. “The day you open is just the beginning of continuous learning, continuous improvement.”

That path might lead to integrating the 311 service with geographic information systems, applying business intelligence analytical capabi ies and tying it into other self-service avenues such as e-mail and Web services.

For many agencies, the ultimate goal is to have a 311 system as simply one of several channels into a common CRM system. Citizens using any kind of network-enabled device could go on the Internet, use a secure Web portal to gain access to a CRM application and, like the call taker, open a service request or type in a question and receive an answer.

Also, call center experts say public officials shouldn’t worry if they are not yet ready for that type of interaction.

“This can seem like a really Herculean task in terms of the time and budget that it can take,” said Tom Mazur, senior vice president of strategic business development at Lagan. “The key is to pick some low-hanging fruit, some real needs within the city that can be addressed by 311, and then [develop] it from there.”

Hayes ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va.  


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