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Scaling Down 311: Data Analytics is Still a Work in Progress

The desire to measure and manage performance based on data captured by CRM software holds the same level of importance no matter a city's size.

Editor's note: This is part three 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.


2015 marked the 12th anniversary of the nation’s largest 311 call center. New York City celebrated the date by releasing data showing 2014 to be its busiest year ever, with more than 28 million customer contacts. Having used 311 for so long and having so much information, New York City has developed a sophisticated performance-management operation that delivers reports and analytics on the calls and requests it receives.

For smaller jurisdictions, the desire to measure and manage performance based on data captured by CRM software is just as important as it is in the Big Apple. Mankato, Minnesota’s city managers have been analyzing the types of calls and requests the 311 center receives as they look for opportunities to improve internal processes and customer service. So far, the data has led to the launch of an online park reservation system and centralization of the city’s parking system, including passes and billing. The city also began routing queries about housing assistance, planning, zoning and permitting to its 311 call agents.

What makes 311 so powerful for city managers is that every call involving a service request can be documented, followed up on and reported on, and can include communication of some kind with the person who made the request. “There’s a complete audit trail, and from a management perspective that’s tremendously huge in terms of analyzing data,” said Erika Storlie, deputy city manager for Evanston, Ill.

That data can tell her where there might be staffing needs, as well as any deficiencies in certain operations. For example, residents will call if their recycling isn’t picked up. The number of calls provides data on what’s known as the “miss rate,” and so far Evanston has done a very good job. “We’re very good at recycling, because we know our miss rate is like .0001 percent,” Storlie said.

Evanston has also used 311 data to monitor broken parking meters and evaluate the installation of new ones that come with credit card features. In addition, the data has been used to deal with a common problem in urban areas: rats. Rather than respond reactively to the issue, Storlie said the city has developed a more holistic response, identifying where there are clusters of rat problems and attacking the issue in a more effective way.

How much data analysis takes place depends on the sophistication of the city’s CRM system. For some smaller jurisdictions with older systems, it can be difficult to get quality information out of the software. Most 311 managers are focused on daily call volumes, timeframe to complete a call, status reports, productivity of call takers and so on. Evaluating performance measures that affect services, such as trash pickup and park reservations, is still a work in progress for some cities.

But when it comes to using 311 data to inform how a local government should budget its money, many smaller cities are not quite there yet. “From a budget perspective, I don’t think we’ve really used 311 data to show where the money is going,” said Storlie. Instead, 311 metrics can be used to show the growth in demand for 311, based on requests for service, and can help justify the need for more call center staff.

Growing Pains for Small Jurisdiction

With hundreds of cities using 311 and growth continuing, especially among smaller jurisdictions, it’s easy to paint a picture of an IT success story in local government. 311 is clearly helping improve customer service and has revitalized citizen engagement at a time when many people don’t trust government like they used to. The data that flows out of the system can be used by city managers to measure performance and reallocate resources where they are needed most. There’s also plenty of evidence that cities are learning how to better utilize their staff. That’s important, because local government work forces have practically stopped growing.

311 Resources

International City/County Management Association. ICMA conducts research and provides technical assistance on 311. Its webpage contains articles, blog pots, documents, groups and more.

Association of Government Contact Center Professionals. A membership organization that educates and support public sector contact center professionals through conferences and other events. An online support group for open channels of communication for issues that concern public space and public services. Open311 supports free web API access to existing 311 services, and sees itself as an evolution of the phone-based 311 systems.

The 311 Synergy Group describes itself as “a professional, unbiased environment for in-depth and on-going discussion of current issues and common interests among current and prospective 311 customer contact managers throughout North America.”

But challenges remain. First is the issue of cost. For large cities, 311 budgets can run in the millions, even tens of millions, of dollars annually. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that it costs cities an average of $3.40 to answer a 311 call. Detroit, which closed its 311 center in 2012, was spending $7.78 per call, the highest average among large cities.

For smaller jurisdictions, cost is a constant concern. Mankato managed to build its 311 center without any net increase in its budget, according to Tanya Ange, Mankato’s deputy city manager. “We used existing human resources and didn’t bring in an outside consultant,” she said. The city also received advice from its neighbor to the north, Minneapolis, which has its own 311 center. “We modeled much of our processes on what Minneapolis is doing,” added Ange.

Evanston has also managed to keep its 311 costs under control. The city measures costs based on the entire interaction that takes place, not just the call itself. When done this way, the city says its costs are below the industry average.

Training, another issue for big city 311 centers, seems less of a problem for smaller governments. Cities that have a dozen call takers or fewer describe having tight-knit teams of workers who are cross-trained to handle more complex requests, such as permitting, recycling, housing assistance and other core government services. Rather, the problem is managing the demand and pushing for additional staff as calls and requests grow. Henley sees Chattanooga’s 311 call volume surging. “We are struggling to keep up with the volume with the number of customer service reps we currently have,” she said. “We’re trying to find the money in the budget for more. We need to reduce the wait time.”

Keeping up with technology is a perennial problem. Cities want to offer their citizens multiple channels for communication and interaction; they also want to include social media. That means having the most up-to-date CRM software. For big cities, replacing a CRM platform can be expensive and time-consuming. Some cities have been using the same CRM for years.

But the technology is evolving. Thanks to cloud computing, the number of CRM programs that are available as hosted services has grown significantly. Market research firm Gartner predicts that more than 50 percent of CRM deployments this year will be as software-as-a-service. And while that doesn’t mean 50 percent of 311 centers will operate in the cloud, it is a sign that change is under way. Evanston, which just replaced its CRM, now uses a cloud-based system, according to Susan Pontarelli, Evanston’s 311 service desk supervisor.

“It’s an essential service”

When a flood hit Mankato a while back, phone calls from concerned citizens started pouring into the city’s 311 system. As day turned into evening, Mankato decided to keep its 311 line operating beyond normal hours so that its 911 system wouldn’t be overloaded with calls. Without the call center, the city’s first responders would have been overwhelmed by the call volume, according to Ange.

Other small jurisdictions also reported offloading spikes in calls by rerouting to 311 during special events and other types of emergencies. It’s another example of how the service and technology enables smaller jurisdictions to cope with limited staff yet still deliver services to their constituents. And it’s a testament to how software, good planning and a small but well trained staff can provide a small local government with the ability to deliver the kind of customer service that one would only expect to find in a larger city. As one city manager put it, “311 has become an essential service for city government.”

Maintaining that essential service will be the challenge going forward. City managers in small governments want to offer more hours and more staff so fewer calls get dropped. But finding the funds to do it remains a problem. And while new channels such as email, mobile, text and chat offer options, the demand keeps growing.

“The citizens of Chattanooga call us with questions about everything,” said Liz Henley, the city’s call center coordinator. “I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to the city. It’s not a huge investment. You’ve got to have people and equipment, but the return on investment far exceeds the cost.”