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Tulsa, Okla., Launching Modern 311

The city's $2.5 million tech upgrade is expected to significantly improve customer service while improving the efficiency of government operations.

Old technology is cool. Vacuum tubes, storage tapes and computers that fill entire rooms remind of eras gone by. In government, though, old technology is not so cool. Historic relics belong in museums, not in the hands of government workers. In Tulsa, Okla., a city that’s still using a few monochrome green-screen computers, officials are making one of the hallmark shifts in government technology: the 311 upgrade.

Tulsa is upgrading from a voice-based 311 system and a non-integrated Web form to a new customer relationship management (CRM) platform, a Web portal that integrates with the city’s request systems, an online chat system, an interactive voice response system and a mobile 311 app. Tracking and CRM functionality is enabled by KANA, a Verint Company, using the company’s LAGAN Enterprise system. 

It’s important to give citizens lots of options when it comes time to choose how they want to interact with their city and allow them to make requests 24/7, said Michael Radoff, director of the city’s Customer Care Center. Tulsa’s system will allow users to track the progress of their requests and receive updates by email. An upcoming chat system will allow users to ask for help while making a request via the Web portal, or receive proactive chat help.

“For example, if we have a citizen looking at our permit site trying to figure out what permit you want to fill out — because there’s about 50 different permit application forms in there,” Radoff explained. “And so we would be able to pop into that site and have a discussion with that citizen right away and ask them what kind of project they’re trying to do and help them find the right permit form to go out and tell you what you need to do so you can move that project along and get going.”

A modern 311 system enables citizens to perform their requests more easily, but just as important, it allows government to filter and process requests more efficiently, often resulting in faster turnaround times and less time wasted by government. Tulsa receives between 550,000 and 650,000 311 calls and about 60,000 service requests each year. Radoff predicted the online capabilities of the new system alone will reduce call volume by 25 percent. Combined with the reduction in duplicate requests and increased efficiency gained by equipping agents with data-rich back-end tools, the city isn’t only investing in customer care, but stands to gain financially in the long run, too.

“One of the complaints we had heard from departments and still hear is that either we send a service request to the wrong department because whoever received the service request didn’t ask the right kinds of questions to determine which department it actually went to and when the citizens don’t know exactly what they need to tell us so it gets to the right place,” Radoff said, but the new system has a questioning script tool that uses a dynamic decision tree to make sorting requests easy.

When citizens make service requests, government workers no longer need resort to as many manual processes, said Dianna Phillips, call center manager.

“One of the things KANA will do is show the agents a map of where when they put in a location and it will show them any existing cases on the map, so right now we deal with duplication because different citizens might call in about the same thing, but right now there’s nothing linked with each other right now, but with new system it will,” Phillips explained. “Not only will it save time with the agents and it will save time in the back office because they won’t be dealing with duplicate orders anymore either. There’s many areas like that that can save and make things way more efficient.”

The city really is aiming for efficiency, said Deloris McKnight, project manager of the Tulsa 311 Solution Project. 

“The more you use it and the more departments you get involved in it, the more you’ll get a return,” McKnight said, adding that the technology team spends a lot of time today maintaining aging equipment. “We’re grateful that this mayor had a vision that could send the funds that way and get these kinds of projects going.”

About 30 North American cities use KANA applications to support their 311 call centers, said Steve Carter, account manager for public sector at KANA, and the thing that surprises every city is the volume they receive. 

“They get more calls than they ever imagined,” Carter said. “And they get calls about anything and everything. Our products help customers like Tulsa build the knowledge base they need to handle all types of calls. Our application will help them grow and meet those kinds of unique demands that get added along the way. Besides the normal, everyday city services, there’s a lot of things that 311 does. Our agent desktop helps tie a lot of things together. Our knowledge product lets them track all that information.”

Radoff reported Tulsa's CRM is costing the city just under $1 million, and the incident based reporting (IBR) system costs about $1.5 million, and minor upgrades to the city’s Avaya phone system are included in the cost of an upgrade conducted two years ago. To plan the 311 system upgrade has been two years in the making, Radoff said — it’s a huge project.

“One of the lessons I learned along the way is to reach out to the cities that have actually done this, and it’s amazing how much you can learn from your peers,” he said. “It took us a good year and a half to get through identifying all the telephone providers, going through the contracting process with all them and getting them to flip the switches to get that to work. That was pretty complex and not a lot of people understand that.”

Education and training is another big part of the process that many people underestimate, Radoff said. In Tulsa, they didn’t have many workers who were knowledgeable about the new technologies they were bringing in, so relying on vendors and experienced colleagues in other parts of the country is a valuable resource.

“If I had to do it again, I would have learned heavier on the vendors sooner on to push them to communicate more with the folks on our end,” Radoff said, “because I think we lost some time here because our folks didn’t really know what they needed to do, and the vendors didn’t know that our folks didn’t really know, and if I would have gotten in between that I probably would have helped bridge that gap a little bit more and moved things along a little bit quicker.”

Tulsa’s call center is scheduled to go live in June, and officials say the city will continue seeking improvements to the system as the months pass.

Editor's Note: This story was edited on May 28 to reflect the correct name of the vendor.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.