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

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor