During his campaign for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg was frustrated to discover that New Yorkers had to sift through pages of phone numbers for city services. He responded by making customer service via one phone number a key priority for his new administration.

The city is centralizing 40 different call centers, 14 pages of phone numbers and a host of help lines from dozens of different city agencies into one three-digit phone number and service center staffed by more than 300 operators. The initiative is backed by an integrated call center information system about as sophisticated and enterprising as they get.

In addition to handling as many as 30,000 calls in 170 languages, 24 hours per day, seven days a week, the 311 system is expected to increase worker productivity, reduce operating costs and help the city leverage its existing resources in dealing with quality of life issues. Once the 311 service has been fully marketed and the 45,000 square foot operations center is fully staffed, the city expects to answer nearly 10 million calls annually -- three times the volume of the next largest city call center in Chicago.

"There hasn't been anything done on this scale before," said Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Commissioner Gino P. Menchini. "Ultimately the mayor wants to change the city's identity in terms of customer service."

It's not just the size but also the scope of the project that caught the attention of others in government. Most jurisdictions expect their 311 projects to grow in size, but many don't plan for the potential transformation of government services. New York City is different, according to John Kost, managing vice president for Gartner Research.

"New York City, unlike most 311 implementations, has a grander vision of how they want this thing to grow," he said. New York City viewed its 311 system as much more than a call center application right from the start. That view depicts more pro-active city services, as well as transparent government based on detailed information captured by the technology behind 311.

Other cities that have launched successful 311 systems include Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore, to name a few.

The mayor, a wealthy businessman who eschews the trappings of the office for a down-to-earth work ethic -- he rides the subway to work and has a cubicle at City Hall -- is known to have a passion for technology when it comes to solving business problems.

"He not only gets technology, he gives it," joked Menchini, who said he spent numerous occasions with the mayor going over the intricacies of the call center implementation.

In addition to insisting on one number (along with 911 for emergencies) for city residents to call for city services and information, the mayor also required that callers only talk with a live operator. He said automated interactive voice response (IVR) should not be used for handling requests or complaints, and that calls were to be answered within three rings -- the goal is to answer 80 percent of all calls within five seconds. According to Kost, most cities that have opted for 311 are using live operators as the main contact point for callers.

"Cities tend to focus on the channel that citizens are most accustomed to dealing with," he said.

Bloomberg set a final requirement: The call center had to be up and running in just a few months. Like many businessmen, he has no patience for a long, drawn-out procurement and implementation process. The initiative was announced during the State of the City address in January 2002 -- by July, the pace of implementation reached high gear, according to Steve Hurst, a partner with Accenture, the project's prime contractor.

Software, Training and Knowledge

One reason the project stayed on track was because the key piece of call center software, from Siebel Systems, was already used

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor