Phone Banks

Joint city/county 311 call centers could be local government's next step in the evolution of customer service.

by / November 6, 2006
Just a few years ago, people cringed at the thought of calling a local government agency to deal with an issue.

Everybody knew the drill -- you call; somebody picks up the phone and drones a greeting; you start to ask your question but get put on hold, often before you even finish speaking; you wait; you wait some more; your spirits soar when somebody finally picks up, only to mutter something about transferring your call to the "right department;" then the painful process starts over.

These days, calling city or county offices is a different experience. Since the late 1990s, a growing number of local governments have built 311 call centers to field customer service requests. No matter the circumstance, a person need only dial 311 to reach customer service agents who direct the inquiry where it needs to go.

Until recently, local governments operated their own, stand-alone 311 systems, but that approach may be changing.

Miami and Miami-Dade County, Fla., opened a consolidated 311 system, as did Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C. Both 311 systems went live in mid-2005, and officials from both areas said the consolidated systems have produced positive results.

Customer Service by Proxy
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County went live with their consolidated 311 system on July 5, 2005. Charlotte began planning the 311 system in 2003, said Saskia Thompson, 311 project manager. City officials were happy the county showed interest in joining the system from the start, she said.

"We couldn't do it without the county signing off and saying it wasn't interested, or partnering with us," Thompson said of the county having rights to the 311 phone number. "Because of the way the FCC's regulations are written, you have to have permission from the other jurisdictions to actually get access to the 311 code."

The two jurisdictions have pursued "functional consolidation" for years to avoid duplicating services, Thompson said, citing the merging of city and county police forces into the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police District in 1994 as one example.

A joint 311 system is a natural fit, she said, and the city and county learned valuable lessons from the earlier functional consolidations -- namely, everybody must decide early on whether the city or county will run the service.

"Because we [the city] have 911, and we have an interest in offloading nonemergency calls going to 911, and because we already had a very small customer service center, the county viewed the city as already being in the business of customer service," Thompson said. "It makes more sense for the city to run the 311 call center. Once we really got started on the planning, the county always looked at it as though the county would be purchasing customer service from Charlotte."

Officials selected five agencies from Charlotte and two agencies from Mecklenburg County as the first group to be supported by the 311 system.

Thompson said Charlotte considered three factors when deciding which city and county agencies to initially include in the 311 system: those with high call volumes, a big impact on people's lives and the easiest existing call centers to bring into the 311 system.

The city chose its customer service center, Charlotte Solid Waste Services, Nonemergency Police Services, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities and the Charlotte Department of Transportation as the first 311 participants. On the county side, the Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department and the Office of the Tax Collector joined the 311 system.

Settling the Bill
Though the 311 system has been going strong for a year, iron-clad service-level agreements (SLAs) have never been part of how 311 works, said Thompson.

"It's not that formal at this point, but we'll probably restructure the way we're doing the bill back," she said, noting that Mecklenburg County paid for 26 percent of Charlotte's customer service center's budget because the center fielded general information calls for the county.

"Because we didn't have accurate forecasting for our call volume, we went into the first year of operation of 311 on a 26 percent formula -- the county would pay 26 percent of all costs," she said, including consultants, building the facility and operations during that first year. "We recognized going in that there was a clear possibility that the city could be taking a hit, or that the county could. But without having any accurate forecasting in terms of service levels, that was just our best guess."

Oddly enough, after the fiscal year, which ended July 2006, the 26 percent turned out to be relatively accurate, she said, though it's unclear if the same percentage will work in the future.

"We think that formula will change a lot over the next couple of years because the next couple of departments we bring in will be county departments," she explained. "We'll have to restructure the formula and make it a little more formal, but for the startup costs and the first year of operations, it turned out to be pretty accurate when you look at how the call volume is actually broken down."

Participating agencies assess the 311 system's performance via monthly reports produced by the call center. These reports compile various data, such as number of incoming calls to a specific agency, average speed to answer the call, average "handle time" of the call, and overall service levels.

The target is for the call center to answer 80 percent of all incoming calls within 30 seconds, she said, something the call center did every month during its first year of operation -- except for December 2005 and January 2006. The call center's call volume increased dramatically during summer 2006, she said, which will require the call center to restructure its staffing levels.

Charlotte hired a director for its 311 system from the private sector, Thompson said, and agencies unsatisfied with the call center's performance first take their problem to the director. If for some reason the problem can't be solved, an agency can then go to Thompson to seek resolution.

The 311 system has performed up to agencies' expectations, she said, though the city had to make adjustments for particular agencies.

"We had to change a lot of services over the first year," she said. "You go in with your best 'in-theory' formula for how you get these things done, and some departments have pulled back some call types, and others want to give us more."

Studying Customer Service
Though the move to 311 systems is about a decade old -- observers peg the Baltimore Police Department's 311, rolled out in 1996, as one of the first -- many local governments remain leery of the technology, said Cory Fleming, senior project manager of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

In mid-2006, Fleming said, the ICMA launched an 18-month nationwide study of existing 311 systems, which will include a national survey of local governments on the use of 311 systems and other customer service technology. Fleming said the survey's results will be released by spring 2007.

The ICMA intends to collect information on the extent to which 311 systems and related technologies are used in local governments; successful implementations of these systems; how they're being used to respond to citizen needs; whether local government-constituent relationships are being strengthened as a result; and potential barriers to implementing these systems.

"For whatever reason, 311 has not filtered across local government," Fleming said. "A lot of local governments have not picked it up yet, and we want to get into why. There's some anecdotal evidence, but there's no scientific basis at this point. In terms of anecdotal evidence, there's an argument that 311 is confusing with 911, and that citizens won't understand the difference between those two.

"Another piece of anecdotal evidence is that 311 is expensive," Fleming continued. "It requires staff time because people, when they get on the telephone, want to talk to a real, live person, and so you have to staff up for some of those things. Whether those types of things have proved to be actual barriers, we don't know at this point."

The ICMA's research, so far, highlights the difficulty of integrating 311 systems with existing city or county agencies, Fleming said, noting that besides the technological challenges, a new 311 system presents change-management problems.

First, agencies must prepare themselves to give up taking those calls -- and though offloading customer service responsibilities seems like something agencies would jump at, it's not as easy as just not answering the phone anymore.

Successfully rolling out a 311 system requires city or county departments to re-examine how they process incoming constituent calls, and think about the steps contained in that process. Agencies must then document that knowledge to share it with the 311 call center's administrators.

Historically agencies hesitate to share information at all with each other, let alone workflow information. That hesitation could lead to difficulty in setting up agreements between the 311 call center and other agencies for answering calls within a certain time frame and following up on the service request.

"The 311 operators take the calls in, but if there's not a feedback loop so the city can follow through with the customer and say, 'OK, we'll have somebody out within 48 hours to repair that pothole,' and then be able to follow through on that -- then citizens don't think the 311 system is working," she said.

Miami 311
Miami and Miami-Dade County, Fla., went live with their consolidated 311 system at approximately the same time as Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The system was built because the chief administrative officers of Miami and Miami-Dade County agreed that a consolidated 311 was the smart thing to do, given the circumstances in south Florida, said Don Riedel, Miami's director of CitiStat/311.

"When you look at the area down here, it is one media area," Riedel said. "There are no boundaries. We don't have city stations and county stations. It's very difficult for citizens to understand through the normal media outlets whether they work in the city or live in the county. The media doesn't help that situation because the media covers both areas, without any differentiation in their broadcast footprint."

Miami and the county faced a problem -- if each jurisdiction attempted to build its own stand-alone call center, both jurisdictions ran a real risk of doing more harm than good.

"It became obvious that if we both built a call center and tried to advertise it through a media that had no differentiation between our boundaries, we would cause complete confusion," Riedel said. "We would be transferring calls back and forth between the two call centers all day long."

Miami, which had rights to the 311 number within its municipal boundaries, signed an inter-local agreement with Miami-Dade County to implement the consolidated city/county 311 system in mid-2004.

The 311 call center -- which is operated by the county -- answers more than 4,000 calls daily, with an average wait time of less than 40 seconds to reach a live operator, and 77 percent of all calls are resolved on first contact. The call center fielded more than 1 million calls during its first year of operation, according to Miami officials.

Though Miami-Dade County codified its relationship with Miami vis-
Shane Peterson Associate Editor