Scaling Down 311: Challenges and Opportunities with Multichannel CRM

Offering more options for citizens to connect with 311 means that fewer calls will come through the call center, but converting calls into online interactions isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series in which Government Technology looks at how some smaller jurisdictions have leveraged the latest in CRM technology to improve customer services and how they are coping with the changes that come with the technology.


One reason to have different channels for citizens to interact with their city is to give everyone a choice. Long gone are the days when a local government would decide what was going to be the point of contact — a front desk or a phone — and then expect the community to adhere to those limited options. Having more online options also means that fewer calls will come through the call center, which can be limited in staff size.

But converting calls into online interactions isn’t as easy as it sounds. Although some jurisdictions have moved as much as 30 percent of their calls to a self-service channel, most 311 services report just a 10 to 20 percent self-serve threshold with mobile apps. Liz Henley, Chattanooga’s 311 call center coordinator, said she expects to see some drop in call volume once Chattanooga launches its mobile 311 app, but the shift isn’t likely to make much of a difference. “I’ve talked to other call centers and the sense is that the mobile app frees up space for other calls to get through, so I don’t expect call traffic to decrease tremendously.”

Open Data: In 2012, Chicago launched Open311, which allows residents to track service requests. The idea was to reduce the number of redundant requests for the same service by making it possible for users to see and track how a problem such as graffiti, a pothole or a broken streetlight is being handled. Nearly 40 percent of the most common service calls into Chicago’s 311 are either duplicates or residents calling to check on the status of a request. By opening up that portion of 311 data to public viewing, Chicago and other cities have found a way to leverage open data so that it improves customer service while holding down costs. Other jurisdictions, including Palo Alto, Calif., have since added open data to their 311 systems.

Open Source: Free software has had a checkered history in government. But the open source movement continues to maintain a presence. So it’s no surprise to see that customer relationship software is available as open source. SugarCRM, an open source version of CRM, is well known in the public sector, but it’s hardly the only one., which tracks open source software for industry and government, lists 10 fully functional versions of CRM that are open source: SuiteCRM, Capsule, Insightly, Really Simple Systems, Fat Free CRM, Bitrix24, Raynet, vtiger, Zoho CRM and Zurmo.

Cloud: Software-as-a-service has entered the CRM/311 space, and local governments have taken notice. In 2014, Philadelphia launched a cloud-based 311 service built by Unisys. Evanston, Ill., uses PublicStuff, a cloud CRM software platform. And expect to see more as cloud CRM firms, such as, ramp up their offerings. In fact, cloud CRM is expected to reach 85 percent of all deployments, according to Gartner, the IT research firm. Most of the shift to the cloud is due to private-sector sales teams wanting the latest and most responsive type of CRM to keep up with customer demands, according to Forbes. But that shift is beginning to make itself felt in government CRM as well.

Citizen Engagement
: Just a few years ago, it was hard to find anyone linking the topic of citizen engagement with 311. Today citizen engagement has become extremely important in local government, thanks to the merging of CRM, social media, mobile technologies and customer service. The International City/County Management Association, which represents thousands of local governments, lists citizen engagement as one of its core topics. Perhaps the best example of the interconnection between engagement and 311 can be found in Boston’s Citizens Connect mobile 311 app, which not only allows users to report problems but also to provide feedback on community issues. Expect to see citizen engagement and 311 become more integral in the years ahead.

Multiple Channels: In the early days, 311 was dubbed a “hotline” and was limited to phone service. But it wasn’t long before early innovators, like New York City and Chicago, added a Web version. With the rise of the smartphone, mobile 311 apps soon appeared. Today, 311 is a brand for multiple channels that also include live chat and texting. Multiple-channel 311 reflects the diversity of people who want to communicate and interact with their city hall in different ways. “There are certain demographics that just want to talk with someone and then there are others who want to use the Web or text,” said Susan Pontarelli, 311/service desk supervisor for Evanston, Ill., which has a full range of 311 channels.

Social Media: Like many other government operations that have adopted social media, 311 services initially saw Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms as a means to send outbound marketing, promotional and service-related messages. However, as citizens have turned to social media to solve customer service issues, 311 centers have responded and are beginning to use the tools as a way to interact, engage and help constituents.

Like any for-profit call center, local governments strive to answer every call that comes in and hopefully resolve the issue without any additional calls back or line transfers. Giving citizens multiple channels can help alleviate potential chokepoints. For calls that come in after normal working hours, some jurisdictions route them to 911 dispatchers, while others turn to their interactive voice response service.

Adding new channels can be a challenge. Not everyone knows how to use them or that they are available. In Evanston, the 311 center has turned to the city’s community engagement team to help roll out these features. The team is adept at knowing where to put engagement features online and how to use them most effectively. “We work with them to market our services by engaging the community through electronic newsletters and press releases,” said Susan Pontarelli, Evanston’s 311 service desk supervisor. “We even use a car that’s wrapped with messages about the city’s mobile 311 service.”

Evanston’s collaboration with its community engagement team raises another important point. Community or citizen engagement has become an essential aspect of local government operations, and 311 sits squarely in the center of this trend. Traditionally, citizen engagement meant attending town hall meetings. But in today’s busy world, that form of engagement is less effective, especially when there are online ways to accomplish it.

Savannah, Ga., uses its 311 system as a way to engage its citizens. The city sees 311 as its “frontline,” and by allowing citizens to use it to ask for information, request service or even complain, it opens the door to more strategic levels of engagement, according to an International City/County Management Association report.

In Chattanooga, Henley regularly engages with neighborhood leaders to discuss 311 and community issues. “I talk to neighborhood associations and help people understand what we do,” she said. “I don’t just tell them about 311, but also give them tips on how to keep their blocks safe and clean, and how they can improve their neighborhood. Since we handle the complaints about litter, blight and other problems, we can help raise awareness of what can be done to keep neighborhoods looking nice.”

311 Revamps Internal Operations

While 311 and CRM technology enhance how smaller cities serve and engage with their citizens, they also are bringing change to internal operations. Part of the reason why Mankato, Minn.,  and other jurisdictions have invested in 311 is to rethink how a city uses its resources. If a city’s public works department is undermanned due to budget cuts, then it makes sense to spend every available minute delivering services, not answering questions about the “85 percent” of information that can be made available to the public, as Tanya Ange, Mandato’s deputy city manager, explained.

“Before we launched 311, we spent a lot of time assessing how our internal processes worked,” she said. The result was a database of information that could be made available publicly and a second database, called the knowledge base, that employees could tap into should they find themselves answering a query.

In other words, make as much information publicly available as possible so that fewer people call individual departments for information and requests for service. But also make it possible that any employee can assist a caller without having to transfer that call. “We use the phrase ‘Anyone can 311’ because we built it that way,” said Ange.

The technology also can provide internal customer service. Evanston used its CRM to create a 311 system for the facilities management department. City staff can submit requests for repairs or to schedule building work. CRM is also used to manage internal help desk requests for IT support.

But the ultimate goal for 311, as far as internal operations are concerned, is to divert calls and queries that normally end up going to individual departments so that workers can focus on service delivery. While some jurisdictions reported initial skepticism that call center representatives could adequately answer specific questions, the views in most departments have swung 180 degrees in support of 311 as the call takers have proven themselves more than capable of answering all but the most complex queries.

Adequate training is the answer to any naysayers, say veteran 311 managers. And one of the best ways to train is with the involvement of department staff. “We have staff brief our agents on changes or enhancements to city services that they need to know about, so they can properly answer questions that come in from the public,” said Ange. For example, when a new civic center was built in Mankato, civil engineers came in and briefed the call takers on such things as the location of handicapped parking. In Evanston, call takers are given periodic tours of the city so they can see where any new facilities — public and private — are located, making it easier to give callers directions and information on parking.

Next up: Look for part three, Data Analytics is Still a Work in Progress, on June 4.