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311: From a Hotline to a Platform for Citizen Engagement

The days when cities offered a three-digit hotline service have been eclipsed by what might be called the Amazon era, where customer service is paramount.

Boston, a city of nearly 650,000, launched in 2009 what is probably the first mobile app for 311 services. BOS:311, formerly called Citizens Connect, allows anyone to request a variety of services using their smartphone and an Internet connection. The app even allows them to take photos of a pothole, geotag its location, and forward to the city so workers can quickly find and fix the problem. Today, the data collected from 311, whether from the app or from regular phone calls, helps the city not only decide how it should improve services, but it also can figure out who needs those services more, and if they aren’t getting the right services, why not.

Somerville, Mass., just up the Mystic River from Boston and with barely one-tenth the population, also has a mobile app for 311. Like its big neighbor, Somerville’s customer relationship management (CRM) system resides in the cloud. It has an analytics team that combs through the vast amount of data captured by the system and uses the results to improve performance and services, and to help forecast trending needs as well as costs.

The Age of

The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. The June 2017 report explores the idea that the tech that drives 311 can help government deliver an Amazon-like experience.

Part 1: 311: From a Hotline to a Platform for Citizen Engagement

Part 2: Cloud 311 Popularity Grows as Cities of All Sizes Move to Remotely Hosted CRM

Part 3: The Future of CRM and Customer Service: Look to Boston

Part 4: CRM Use Is Gaining Traction in Local Government — Here Are the Numbers to Prove It

Two local governments, one large, one small, epitomize the new era in 311. The days when cities offered a three-digit hotline service have been eclipsed by what might be called the Amazon era, where customer service is paramount, citizens are customers as much as they are taxpaying constituents. The technology that makes it all happen is in the cloud, offering multiple channels for engagement, while capturing high-value data that can help local governments better allocate scarce resources. And the divergent sizes of Somerville and Boston showcase how 311 is becoming a universal service for all local jurisdictions.

“There’s been a shift away from 311 being a glorified switchboard that handles basic questions to where it can handle multiple channels, moving requests forward automatically, even closing out the process and informing the customer that the job is done,” said Craig Cornelius, senior vice president at Eventus, a consulting firm that specializes in customer engagement. “311 is now about work order management, field services and customer satisfaction.”

But turning 311 from a hotline into a platform for citizen engagement and customer service similar to what’s offered by the commercial sector is not so simple. Local government still largely operates through agencies that work in silos, making it difficult to merge the latest in call center and customer service technology with government that is still shackled by legacy work and management traditions. Government still must serve all customers, and it cannot require its customers to submit requests online and not use the phone. Finally, 311 doesn’t generate revenue; it’s a service paid for by taxpayers, which means costs are an ongoing concern.

While it’s no longer a question of whether local governments can offer advanced customer service through CRM, there is a raft of challenges that leave some wondering just how well it can be done.

The Kansas City Experience

There are a number of cities that get 311 right, but to get a real sense of where things are headed, take a look at Kansas City, Mo. The city has a 311 call center that has been operating since 2007 and handles about 10,000 calls per week. But it also allows residents to request services via the Web, a mobile app and with social media, such as Twitter. The city customers who use 311 can track the progress of their request on a map (say, a broken streetlight) or they can go online and look up the status of the number assigned to their service request.

But what makes Kansas City so unique is the data. With nearly 400,000 calls, complaints and service requests annually, the city can track a wide range of work and performance factors that can affect everything from workflow to budgeting and even resource allocation, according to Jean Ann Lawson, assistant to the city manager. Having used 311 for nearly a decade has given the city time to make changes to how it collects data and what it does with the information.

“Initially, it was about the input and not so much the outcome,” she said. But as the city’s use of 311 grew to cover engagement as well as services, the importance of the data increased, not just for city managers and departments, but for the public as well. Everyone who makes a service request is asked to complete a short survey. While the data from 311 might tell a city agency one thing about how quickly it handles a service request, public perception might be different. The surveys are repeated to see if issues are changing and customer service is improving.

“By pairing 311 data with annual citizen surveys, we can do a much better job at targeting resources,” said Lawson. “The data lets us know what residents want and where they want it.”

The city also pays close attention to what citizens think of 311 service overall. In 2010, 49 percent of survey respondents said they were satisfied with the service; last year 61 percent of respondents said it was doing a good job. In all, the city tracks more than 500 different types of data points that have to do with 311 and posts all the results in charts on its open data portal.

Lawson attributes the obsession with data to Troy Schulte, the city manager. “There used to be a lack of accountability, whether departments performed well [with 311] or not, and most of the time they did not perform or participate because there was no incentive for them,” she said. “But the current city manager is a leader when it comes to data-driven city government. He wanted the data, so he started meeting with departments and looked at their performance on the service requests. Since then, things have progressed as more departments rely on 311 data to measure performance and service satisfaction.”

Upgrading 311 Capabilities

Kansas City replaced its CRM in 2015, but has decided to upgrade again and plans to have a new system from Tyler Technologies in place by the end of the year. It follows a pattern among other cities that have launched 311, only to end up modernizing the back-end technology as features continue to evolve and customer expectations grow. Depending on the size and sophistication of the service, a 311 operation might have not just CRM, but also auto call distribution, interactive voice response, computer-telephony integration and some kind of knowledge-management capability.

One of the chief reasons why local governments are upgrading their existing 311 capabilities is the changing way constituents interact with government. Thanks to how commercial online services have broadened the channels for customer interaction, governments find themselves playing catch-up with the newest modes of engagement, according to Cornelius.

“People expect to have a number of different interaction channels available to them all the time. It’s multichannel, with people expecting to text, chat, interact on the Web, as well as make phone calls,” he said.

To provide that kind of capability means cities have to update and upgrade their software. Already, 311 has gone through one evolution from simply being a switchboard-type operation, providing information and taking down requests that were passed on, by paper or email, to specific departments. Now, most 311 services are digitally capturing service requests and automatically routing them to the appropriate department, providing the caller with a tracking number, so that as the request moves forward and becomes a work order, they can check on its progress and eventually receive a notification when the job is done. As in Kansas City, constituents are then asked for feedback on how the service request was handled.

“The more progressive governments are pursuing multichannels, work order management, field service and analytics because it makes for more effective services overall,” said Cornelius.

By having multiple touch points, involving customers and workers, cities can collect an unprecedented amount of data on problems, services, expectations, engagement and their related costs, all in great detail. Using CRM, cities can begin to monitor, measure and analyze services at the enterprise or city level, or at the departmental level. For the first time, many city managers can know for certain whether they are hitting service-level targets.

“You can measure for internal performance as well as provide the public with feedback on what the city has done in terms of performance improvements,” said Cornelius. “If CRM is implemented and used in the right way across the enterprise, it has the ability to become a critical management tool in local government.”