Dialing for Progress

"A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy" -- James Madison

by / August 10, 2006
Over the decades, the relevance of Madison's sentiment has not waned. And yet with our many technological advances, providing universal access to public information is just as challenging today.

Fortunately public-sector agencies nationwide have found new and innovative ways to use technology and make government more convenient and accessible. "N11" call centers -- such as 311 for nonemergency government services and 211 for social services -- provide citizens, businesses and visitors with instant access to a broad range of government services through a single, easy-to-remember phone number.

N11 call center implementations can follow a variety of operating models based on local preferences and requirements. Regardless of the model, CIOs implementing N11 centers should incorporate two key concepts: integration of communications channels and distribution of call center functions. Put together, they provide a more flexible, scalable N11 operation. Putting these concepts into practice can help ensure that N11 call centers provide the greatest possible functionality, both for daily routine operations and emergencies -- when call volumes spike and the contact center's role becomes vital.

Integrating Channels
Most CIOs recognize that integrating phone, Web, mail, fax and walk-in channels into a single system is the best way to provision N11 call centers, and to support citizens and customers. A government that can provide information on any channel -- or with multiple channels at once -- can operate more efficiently and better serve its citizens by letting them interact with government in the way most convenient for them.

Once channels are integrated, governments can implement a wide range of advanced capabilities to help customers use all channels to their fullest potential. In an integrated environment, customers can navigate among the Web, instant messaging-based chat, phone, and eventually, even video conferencing in a single transaction. In addition, jurisdictions can encourage citizens to use less expensive channels, such as automated Web forms or natural voice recognition phone system whenever appropriate, while still offering one-on-one assistance when required. In turn, citizens can better monitor government performance thanks to the transparency provided through integration of all points of entry into government.

With an integrated environment, citizens can track the status of open requests -- regardless of the channel used to initiate those requests -- by visiting a Web site, receiving an e-mail, or even receiving a voice or text message on a mobile device. An integrated government becomes more responsive to citizens while reducing costs, since follow-up questions can be handled efficiently online, instead of snail mail or costly phone contacts with a live operator.

To develop an effective channel integration strategy, CIOs should begin by assessing their jurisdiction's current online and call center capabilities. Whether a government invests in a 311 call center, Web-based e-government services, or both simultaneously, depends on which stage of the call center/Web services life cycle the jurisdiction is in. CIOs don't have to try to do everything at once. But they do need to consider how applications will integrate in the future, as well as how and what information will be shared among disparate systems, agencies and functions.

Historically many governments have published content, collected information and even performed basic transactions on the Web. But the task of transforming into a true virtual agency -- one in which citizens make requests from a single entry point, and government then provides comprehensive responses by drawing on diverse agencies and systems -- has been much more difficult.

Some N11 call centers, such as New York City's 311, have solved this problem by offering customers a unified interface, and an operator who can navigate the necessary systems and processes for them. This model provides citizens with the benefits of integrated agencies, systems and processes -- even when full integration has not taken place behind the scenes.

Distributing the Call Center
While integration is an important overarching concept for CIOs to keep in mind, the flexibility and scalability of N11 call centers are just as important to their long-term success. Governments often build N11 call centers thinking they will only be used to provide conventional government services. Recent events, however, have shown that during emergencies, the N11 call center suddenly becomes a primary hub through which governments communicate with citizens.

For example, during a major power outage in August 2003, New York City's 311 call center had to rapidly provide a wide range of information and assistance that the architects hadn't envisioned. Instead of responding to routine calls about potholes and noise complaints, operators answered questions about how long medication could last without refrigeration, and where elderly people could find hotel rooms with air conditioning. From then on, New York City officials adopted the call center as a primary tool for the mayor and public safety officials to provide constituents with instructions and information.

The crisis also had a profound and lasting effect on call volume. In the five months prior to the blackout, New York City's 311 call center had averaged more than 324,000 calls per month. When the power went out on August 14, call volume surged, with the center receiving an additional 152,000 calls directly attributable to the outage. More importantly, the call volume didn't recede once the crisis passed. In the five months following the blackout, New York City's 311 center received calls at double the rate before.

The ability to incorporate new kinds of information and services dynamically is just one example of the flexibility N11 call centers require. To withstand events such as natural disasters -- when citizens rely on government information and services most -- N11 call centers must also incorporate geographic and staffing flexibility. For many N11 implementations, that means using Internet protocol (IP) telephony capabilities to bring in redundant call center capabilities located in distant geographic areas.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, citizens needed immediate access to various government and social services. But even in areas where 911 services were down, citizens could access telephone assistance through resilient 211 services that could meet the demand thanks to the dynamic rerouting and scaling capabilities associated with IP telephony.

When N11 call centers operate within a distributed call center environment -- in which calls are processed over the government's data network -- they can continue to function even in the wake of catastrophic natural disasters. This is because a government that treats phone calls as just another network service can dynamically reroute those calls to any location with a network connection -- even a call center on the other side of the country. In a distributed N11 environment, CIOs can rapidly bring in remote operators and call centers if the local call center goes offline -- or even if the call center is simply struggling to support unforeseen call volumes.

A distributed N11 environment can even incorporate home-based workers, eliminating the need for operators to report to the physical call center. Private companies, such as JetBlue Airways, are already using this model and have demonstrated that it is possible to run a well managed, effective call center consisting entirely of telecommuting operators. Even if CIOs are not yet ready to make the leap to full home-based call centers, the model may be an option in the event of a flu pandemic, as governments contemplate how agencies can continue to function when employees can't commute to work.

Virtual contact centers can also provide opportunities for economic stimulation in remote or economically disadvantaged areas.

Cities and counties may not be able to implement a fully distributed N11 environment right away, depending on the technologies currently in place at the call center. CIOs, however, should think about distributed call center capabilities as they plan their long-term N11 strategies. As a first step, CIOs should consider discussing partnerships with other N11 call centers to share operations during unexpected emergencies or to provide "overflow" assistance during major call-volume spikes.

Looking Ahead
N11 call centers can help government improve service and become more responsive and accessible to citizens than ever before. But implementing the functional, flexible and citizen-responsive N11 call centers of tomorrow begins by laying the conceptual groundwork today.
Lawrence Knafo Special to Public CIO