311 systems have revolutionized the way cities gather information, allowing them to tackle small problems before they get too big. But running them can be extremely costly.

As the Great Recession took its toll on Buffalo, N.Y., the city government decided to staunch decay and neglect by targeting its limited resources on the neighborhoods with the greatest need. City departments began weekly sweeps through the most hard-hit wards, providing information to residents about employment and health-care services, while also sealing vacant houses, trimming overgrown trees, mowing empty lots, and removing debris and graffiti.

The city knew exactly where to go and what to do based on data from Buffalo’s 311 hotline service. The city culled data from complaints and requests for service during the year. The targeted sweeps that resulted represented a complete turnaround from the random efforts in the past to fix blighted neighborhoods.

The outreach conducted by Mayor Byron Brown captures in a nutshell how 311 has grown from what was once just a hotline for citizens into something much more. Instead of simply responding to complaints, cities are using 311 proactively to tackle urban problems before they get too big. In Chicago, the city is using analytical software to sift through 311 calls to see if it can spot rat infestations before they become a problem. Like Buffalo, the city is trying to be more effective in how it handles common complaints.

Other cities are using 311 as a way to push out information to citizens. Sometimes it has to do with alerting neighborhoods about shutoffs to repair water lines, or it can be used to alert car owners to keep their vehicles off the streets as a winter storm approaches. In Louisville, Ky., the city used its 311 to let residents know that they could shred personal documents using city paper shredders on select weekends.

City residents aren’t just calling 311 operators. They are increasingly using smartphones with mobile apps to send in requests for service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cities with the most sophisticated 311 systems can capture all this data and use it to track work, measure performance, and make strategic decisions that affect services, policies and budgets. “311 is now used for performance measurement, economic development and community engagement,” says Cory Fleming, 311 program director at the International City/County Management Association. The technology has “gone way beyond its original purpose, which was simply to offload nonemergency calls coming into 911 systems.”

In fact many experts see 311 as a transformative technology for cities, capable of helping mayors and city managers make smart decisions while ensuring that every tax dollar is wisely spent. In some ways the most optimistic views of 311 sound similar to what was once thought would happen when electronic government grabbed everyone’s attention more than 10 years ago, only to fizzle out when it became clear that government couldn’t shift services online quickly, easily or cheaply.

Fortunately, 311 lacks the hype that doomed e-government, and it has had years of testing and practical use to back up some of the claims now being made. But 311 faces hurdles that could stymie its growth and maturity. High costs make it a target for budget cutters, while issues with staff training and retention make it hard for managers to use the systems to their fullest capability. Then there’s the technology itself, which keeps changing. “How do you stay on the cutting edge?” asks Fleming. “It’s relatively hard for a municipality, especially a smaller one, to adapt quickly.”

311 got its start in the 1980s when city leaders began looking for ways to reduce the number of nonemergency 911 calls. In 2002, the hotline got a big boost when newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to apply his technological acumen to New York City’s bewildering array of city services. Backed with lots of resources and a highly publicized rollout, 311 quickly became a huge success in New York and soon spread to other major cities.

Today, nearly 300 cities (and some counties) have a 311 call system or use the underlying technology, known as customer relationship management (CRM), to track service requests and a host of other capabilities. Initially only the biggest cities could afford the technology and the roomful of operators needed to answer the calls. But as the cost of the technology dropped and the capabilities increased, smaller municipalities began using 311 too. The recession slowed down growth and even led a few cities, such as New Orleans and Detroit, to pull the plug on their 311 services. In recent years, however, the number of cities launching 311 is rising again while those that already have the technology are changing how they use it.

“The recession has caused more cities to be innovative when it comes to 311,” says Spencer Stern, a consultant who specializes in helping cities with 311. “Some are adopting and leveraging low-cost channels, such as mobile apps, social media and online chat. These channels are less expensive to process than requests by phone.”

That’s important because it costs an average of $3.40 to answer a call, with some cities paying as much as $4 or $5, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Any calls that can be pushed online represent a serious savings, especially for cities that handle tens of thousands of calls per month. Perhaps the biggest shift has been the move to mobile apps and social media. 311 has had an online presence on the Web for many years, but the rise of smartphones and Twitter, for example, has given cities a new way to engage with citizens. Some cities are already seeing a clear shift away from phone calls to mobile requests. Minneapolis has experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of people using smartphones to connect with the city’s website, according to 311 Director Don Stickney. The growing popularity of the city’s mobile app has led to a decrease in 311 phone calls.

But not all cities are as digitally sophisticated as Minneapolis, and while the use of mobile apps and social media continues to increase, the volume of phone calls has remained rather constant, according to Rose Minton, a consultant and co-founder of the 311 Synergy Group. She says mayors sometimes get the wrong impression that mobile apps will let them serve citizens better while cutting costs. “But when it’s not done correctly, you can end up with another manual process on your hands,” she says.

With luck, mobile apps and websites could help a jurisdiction move 30 percent of calls to self-service, the industry standard. “But most 311 services report just an 18 to 20 percent self-serve threshold with mobile apps,” says Minton. And that only happens when the city has all their internal processes correctly set up and a well organized call center.

The ultimate goal for cities is to capture all the incoming data on every complaint, request and query, so they can track how long it takes a city department to respond and complete the request. Smart cities will publish that information for public consumption. “Transparency has become the byword for good government and 311 is at the forefront to make that happen,” says Stern.

But 311’s real goldmine is the various management reports that can be generated once the data is massaged and analyzed. Not only can city managers and department heads see how well their workforce is performing, but they can start making more accurate projections on where scarce resources should be used. Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, uses the data from its CRM to target urban blight and remove tons of debris.

How 311 data gets used is progressing at “hyper-speed” in Minneapolis, according to Stickney. “We feed data to not just our department heads, but also our elected officials as to what’s going on.” The demand for data reports has risen so dramatically that Minneapolis’ 311 center has created an internal self-serve tool that allows managers and council members to pull the data they want when they need it.

The use of 311 data will only become more specialized and innovative as time goes on, say experts. Already cities like Boston have built mobile apps that allow residents to submit geotagged photos of potholes and broken lights and then track the status of the problem. It’s one of several emerging trends involving 311. The next wave of 311 will turn “every citizen into a sensor,” instantly reporting the location of “broken hydrants, fountains or benches with their smartphones,” according to a paper written by Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner of strategic initiatives at the New York City Police Department, and Robert Wasserman, chairman of the Strategic Policy Partnership. They also predict that with the proliferation of wireless networks, city workers will receive information via wireless devices about problems from 311 calls, and respond to the problem on the spot.

Greater transparency, thanks to 311, will boost citizen engagement and empowerment with the city they live in. To hold down costs, Tumin and Wasserman expect to see more regionalized 311 services emerge. At the same time, the need to share information across boundaries and between public and private sectors will further push the consolidation of these call center systems.

Before the next wave of 311 can arrive, however, cities will have to come to grips with practical issues. First and foremost is cost. The recession and the ongoing fiscal problems in many municipalities have led to cutbacks. Minneapolis spent $3.1 million on its 311 call center in 2013. For the biggest cities, the costs are in excess of $10 million. Some cities have put new initiatives on hold while others have either cut their hours or their staffing.

Just as troubling is finding qualified workers to staff the 311 call centers, train them and then keep them. Many cities still have hiring freezes. Those that can hire, struggle to find the right people. “You have got to have your best and brightest folks in there,” says Stern. “311 is the front door to the city. If people are having a bad experience with the operator, it’s going to sour the constituents on using the service in the future.”

In Minneapolis, 80 percent of all calls are resolved in the call center, which means only two out of 10 queries are pushed over to a specific department for resolution. But to get operators that proficient takes lots of training—up to 15 weeks for new workers. With the economy starting to pick up, demand for experienced call takers in certain hot job markets has led some government 311 workers to jump ship to the private sector.

Then there’s the technology. The CRM software that undergirds all 311 and call center systems needs steady refinements and updates to keep up with the latest in mobile technology, social media and self-service tools, such as automated voice response systems that use computers rather than people to answer basic questions. Jacksonville built its own CRM, which was considered so good at one point that other cities asked if they could use the software. But now the system is out of date and has bugs and other issues, says Monica Cichowlas, the city’s call center customer service manager. “It keeps me up at night, worrying about it,” she says.

Still, the rewards of 311 outweigh the risks. Cities have become magnets for young workers, most of whom are quite comfortable using their smartphone to post a photo of a pothole and don’t mind getting push notifications about events and emergency updates. The relentless demand for more data to track services and solve problems makes 311 an ideal tool. One of the best indicators of 311’s future is the fact that small cities are now jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to offer their citizens the same kind of customer services available in big cities.

Just ask Scott Morelli, city manager of Gardiner, Maine, population 5,800. Last year, Morelli decided to install CRM software so he and others could track progress on service requests. “The price was right and it’s easy to use,” says Morelli. But beyond the practicalities of pricing, Morelli sees a pragmatic future for his city’s use of 311. “It’s going to let us provide better customer service, better tracking of how work gets done and better budgeting.”

This story was originally published by Governing magazine

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.