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Detroit Pulls Plug on 311 Call Center

Budget-driven decision sends inquiries to individual city departments.

A recent article in Government Technology considered the plight of U.S. cities that are struggling to prove a return on investment from their non-emergency call centers. Conceived as a one-stop shop for residents with questions or issues relating to city services, most local leaders believe 311 centers provide a valuable service. In today’s budget climate, however, can cities justify the expense?

In Detroit, the answer, for now, is no.

Noted by Pew Charitable Trust researchers as having the most expensive per-call cost among cities that it recently analyzed — $7.78 per call — Detroit ceased operations at its 311 Call Center on June 30, 2012, the close of its fiscal year.

City officials now direct citizens to reach out to departments directly with their questions, using phone numbers and email addresses available on its website.

In the same announcement, posted July 5, officials stated that Detroit’s Community Access Centers (CAC) have also closed. Residents can now access some services previously available at these centers at four designated recreation centers. Services include dog licenses, city job applications, bus passes, notary services and referrals to other agencies or city departments.

Dubbed “One Call to City Hall” when it launched in 2005, the Detroit 311 Call Center fielded calls with customer service representatives who, according to the Call Center’s Web page, were equipped to help with more than 400 different requests. The page was still active as of Wednesday, July 11.

Spencer Stern, a consultant in the 311 industry, explained in an interview with Government Technology that while municipalities have greater need to prove a return on investment for non-emergency call centers in the current economic environment, it can be done. City leaders see the 311 centers as a way to streamline their operations and improve customer service.

“You’re going to get a higher level of customer service and if you can do it at a break-even point or even be able to save money in the long term, that's a bonus,” Spencer said.

Stern assists cities throughout the country and beyond with different elements of 311 call center implementations — from making the business case to decision-makers, to being involved in the implementation of the technology that manages the customer interactions on the back end. Carlsbad, Calif.; Elgin, Ill.; and Omaha, Neb. are among his current clients.

Municipalities are finding savings from 311 call centers in several key areas. Citizens who contact city departments directly might make a logical assumption on who to call, but even educated guesses are frequently wrong. City staff members spend time redirecting individuals to other offices and departments. Cross-trained 311 Call Center staff are better equipped to respond to a wide variety of inquiries.

According to Stern, non-emergency call center implementations often prompt improved city workflows, resulting in reduced overtime for city staff and quicker resolution of citizen cases.

Perhaps the most compelling cost savings come from more sophisticated self-service tools that CRM vendors now routinely incorporate into their software offerings. A Web-based service request costs a fraction of the typical $3 to $4 price tag that accompanies a service request facilitated by a 311 Call Center agent.

A representative from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office acknowledged via email that the closure of its 311 center was a cost-savings measure, but Government Technology’s attempts to obtain further details from the city were unsuccessful.

While Stern isn’t privy to the budget realities and decision making process in Detroit, he cautions against shuttering non-emergency call centers, which provide a valuable service.

“Cutting back on a service will just make it more challenging for the constituents to get information that they need,” Stern said, noting that in tough economic times, people’s expectations of local government to help connect them with services increase.

Instead, Stern recommends a more measured approach, like reducing call center staff and hours, devoting resources toward constituent self-service options and information kiosks in public facilities.

“I would not have gone cold turkey and shut it down,” he concluded.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.
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