A tree falls in the park down the street from your house. You call the city parks department, a neighbor calls the city public works department and another neighbor leaves a message with a city councilmember. Several days later, a parks maintenance vehicle, a city public works truck and a contract landscaper show up simultaneously to remove the fallen tree.

Two important functions of a 311 call system -- whether it be a city or county system -- are streamlining public reporting processes and helping eliminate such costly redundancies.

Baltimore deployed the nation's first 311 call center in 1996, and the FCC approved it for nationwide use in 1997. Since then, a few dozen jurisdictions have begun using 311 public information and reporting systems, including Houston, Minneapolis and New York City.

Expectation and Innovation

The jurisdictions using 311 systems have devised new and different innovations to satisfy call center demands unique to their constituents' needs.

When initiating New York City's 311 system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg mandated that 85 percent of all incoming calls be answered within 10 seconds. The promise of a live person answering the phone, coupled with the 175 or so languages spoken in New York City, resulted in the need for innovative solutions to help keep the mayor's promise.

New York City currently keeps a number of multilingual operators for the most common languages, and uses a third-party, live-translation service to help meet the needs of city residents who speak less common languages.

If an operator determines that they need language assistance on an incoming call, the third-party system is activated and a translator comes on the line and translates for the call in real-time.

In other cities such as Chicago, Caller ID is used to aid in call routing through automation.

"If we received a call from a phone number about a pot hole, and then have another call two days later coming from the same number, there is a good chance it's about that pothole again," Joe Geiser, Government Solutions Executive for Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories explained. "So the system will try to forward the call to a specialist on potholes or public works."

Increasing Efficiency

Along with caller ID and caller ID history analytics, call centers use a number of customer relationship management (CRM) systems -- offered by companies such as Oracle, PeopleSoft and Siebel -- to track a wide variety of internal metrics used to increase efficiency and public satisfaction. The internal systems keep track of things such as the total time each operator spends on specific types of calls and the number of calls received about the same issue.

Call tracking systems also help administrators track seasonal trends, so call centers can prepare for high-volume periods.

"The hardest part of running a 311 call center is learning to anticipate the unexpected," Geiser observed.

CRM and call tracking systems also offer a way to monitor operator performance. For example, if most operators can handle a call reporting a pothole within 30 seconds, and one operator is averaging 2 minutes, then the call center managers know they need to offer better training to bring that operator up to speed.

A number of cities utilize a multi-tiered approach to handling a number of the more complex calls.

Dean Schloyer, executive director of New York's 311 system explains that New York uses a multi-tiered system of generalists and specialists. While all operators are trained as general operators and can manage the gambit of normal incoming calls, they also maintain a number of specialists that are proficient in the more technical issues that can arise with public works issues.

Houston's 311 system, on the other hand, has worked to train operators to handle any type of call that they may receive.

Focused on serving the largely English and Spanish speaking demographics of the Houston area, Houston maintains a large pool of English- and Spanish-speaking operators so that most calls can be handled without the use of third party translators.

The city has met success with this model. The city constantly works to decrease wait time and achieve "one-call resolution" -- resolving the issue before more calls come in about it -- through increased training.

In Minneapolis, a snowstorm can flood a 311 center with a range of complaints, such as car accidents and fallen trees. Since 311 call centers answer questions having just about anything to do with their jurisdictions, even less conspicuous events can cause surges in the volume of incoming calls -- when New York City implemented a series of tax rebates, call volume to the 311 system went up by nearly 150,000 calls per day.

Web Expansion

Call center administrators are continually working to expand the capabilities of 311 systems to best meet the public's fluctuating needs. One of the most recent innovations is implementing 311 systems online.

Several cities, including Houston, have started moving many of the most routine 311 requests to the Internet, fallen trees and potholes being the most common. Web-based 311 -- where the public can chat online with a 311 operator -- helps call centers cut costs. According to Geiser, answering a 311 call with a live agent costs up to $7 per call, while using the Internet can cost mere cents.

As 311 systems utilize more innovative technologies and creative solutions, city and county governments are seeing an increase in efficiency and a decrease in the costs of redundant operations. The development of these 311 call center operations creates a partnership between technology and public service operations, and delivers a true return on investment to the public.