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Behind Philly311: Six Steps to Innovative Customer Services

Philadelphia has created a blueprint for developing 311 services that are both innovative and supportive for the people who use the hotline app.

Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter was in celebratory spirits Feb. 18 as he strode to a podium to talk about civic technology and the city’s ambitions for the future. It was the city’s first Innovation Summit, a public showcase of a new innovation blueprint and the municipality’s revamped citizen service app Philly311. The pageantry extended to hanging banners, red convention center carpets, Jumbotron speeches, exhibits and even a plush assortment of shiny silver beanbags  —  homage to the tech culture’s love of lounging.

While the app took the spotlight, the blueprint detailed Philly’s weightier stratagems beneath its innovation plans. Scrawled out as a recipe, the blueprint is a step-by-step template cities can use for their own projects. Ask the city’s Managing Director Rich Negrin, and he explains the blueprint as part of Philly’s holistic vision for innovation: part technology, part teamwork and part tactics. Overall, however, Negrin said the city’s sheer needs act as the underlying drivers.

“We have, despite all the progress that we’ve made as a city, almost one in three of our kids live in poverty,” Negrin said. “And so we’ve made a decision that every voice matters … and we need to be responsive in ways that we never have been before utilizing the power of technology.”

Philadelphia is known as the poorest large city in the nation. The U.S. Census 2013 American Community Survey, the most recent bureau report, estimates deep poverty grips 12.2 percent, or roughly 185,000, of the city’s 1.5 million residents. The percentage is a portion of Philadelphia’s 26.3 percent who fall beneath the poverty line and represents nearly double the national average for deep poverty, at 6.3 percent.

The poverty figures, which have been relatively stagnant for years, have prompted a call for technological experimentation. Since 2007, when Nutter took office, the city has successfully launched a number of programs — initiatives and new hires — that have inspired the blueprint.

Negrin identified Adel Ebeid, the city’s first chief innovation officer, as one of the blueprint’s influential authors. Under the mayor’s direction, Ebeid laid groundwork for the Philadelphia Innovation Lab, a hub for municipal innovation projects; OpenDataPhilly, the city’s open data portal, which was also redesigned in February; and the conception of the Philadelphia Innovation Academy, an intensive program that equips staff with innovative practices — many stemming from the private sector.

“Adel is a walking innovation,” Negrin said. “Everything Adel is doing to modernize us internally, indirectly — and sometimes incredibly directly — impacts our citizens in a positive way.”

This includes his work with the city’s Chief Customer Service Officer Rosetta Lue, also a major contributor to the Philly blueprint. In 2008 Lue embraced the task of managing Philly311 when it amounted to a mere skeleton service — essentially just a department directory to redirect calls to other departments. City response times lagged. Communication was tangled or, in worst cases, absent altogether. Now, it's a customer contact center handling thousands of non-emergency complaints: graffiti, potholes, missed trash pickups and the like. Changes for 2015 include connecting these requests to mappable data for easy dispatch, a social media element for neighbor-to-neighbor communication and the underpinnings for predictive analytics that might forecast problems before they start.

Lue and Nutter’s administration expanded the hotline from 65,594 service requests in 2009 to 110,376 in 2014. Phone calls still hold the dominant share of requests; however, mobile submissions have grown exponentially since Philly 311 arrived in 2012 — moving from 1,677, in 2012 to 7,441 requests in 2014.

“With the public launch of Philly 311, [the] new customer relationship management solution, we are continuing to achieve the vision of Mayor Michael A. Nutter,” Lue said in an interview before the summit. “We are revolutionizing the way citizens connect with their government.”

Using Philly311 as a centerpiece in the strategy, the blueprint could easily be retitled as a customer service guide for cities, or in terms of coursework, as Philly’s 101 for 311. The blueprint’s six steps can serve as a general methodology for other innovation projects. They include the following: 

1: Prioritize the Problems

Start with the problems, or in other words, triage municipal pain points and define them concretely. Nutter identified five major challenges: The first was safety, followed by health and education as one, then improving the city’s desirability, focusing on the environment, and boosting service response. 

2: Narrow Down the Objectives

The next step is to articulate the objectives and outcomes for each problem area. On the issue of safety, Nutter and his team determined that the most effective governance in neighborhoods was a vehicle that empowered self-governance. Residents needed a tool to contribute to their own safety that worked in concert with law enforcement. For health and education, the objective was to leverage underutilized services through community outreach. When it came to cultivating the city as both environmentally friendly and a go-to destination, this again came down to community stewardship — residents having a new kind of relationship with the processes and services that governed them. However, to realize this type of crowdsourced — or perhaps “self-organizing” — approach, Nutter’s team realized participation hinged on a heightened level of responsiveness. City services had to have a clear system, not only to collect and catalog complaints, but also to equally empower staff to acknowledge and answer them.

3: Outline the Criteria, Rationalize Against Resources

When it came to tools, civic technology was judged as the means to assess staff impact in a positively disproportionate way. Yet resources had to be considered too. So the administration looked to its customer base to decipher specifications on technology and city support. Internet access was the first thing considered, along with mobile services. Emphasis was placed on developing a simple-to-use, yet highly functional app that acted as an all-in-one support center. Drawing from a $120 million fund for technology upgrades, the city proposed a budget in 2010 and adopted it in July of 2012. In total, the system will cost $5 million over six years, 60 percent for the San Francisco-based CRM company Salesforce and its social, mobile and cloud technologies, and 40 percent for the Blue Bell, Pa., IT firm Unisys for deployment. According to city officials, this is a bargain compared to similar 311 CRM projects.

4: Execution and Refinement Process

Once Nutter gave the green light, teams threw themselves into the project to develop, launch and test a refreshed Philly311 and its accompanying CRM platform — now integrated into the city’s various service departments, websites and apps. From May to June, the pilot was technically outlined and built. In July, teams gave it its first once over, inspecting for flaws. August brought about a series of staff demos and on-the-street user testing. Starting in September, internal training commenced and lasted until Thanksgiving. Last touches came in December for the holiday season when the whole platform was finally released in a beta format. As a worthy side note, the fourth step makes citizen testing a focal point in its process. Philly called upon its system of community volunteers — neighborhood liaisons and block captains that contribute services — to test the app as they performed their specific communication and supporting functions. The result was a windfall of valuable feedback that made the system more compatible to residents and more stable for Philly’s IT department.

5: Expansion at Scale

City officials found community gatherings were a valuable way to field test the 311 app. City service departments educated citizens about service gaps the app might plug, and then used their feedback to evaluate the app's functionality. These were coupled with community training sessions, prioritized by pilot participation signups as well as a several town-hall meetings.

6: Connect Communities Together

The finish line might be better described as another starting line. This was when the city of Philadelphia put its official stamp on the project, christening it at its February summit and rallying a participatory start.

Gauging Efforts

To chart points of impact on Philly’s fledgling enterprise is probably premature. It would be a daunting task — and possibly dispiriting — to track all the possible effects and influences the app or blueprint has had or might have. There are many variables. Contributing city services affect outcomes. Yet this isn’t to say the city isn’t fixing to address this. It is. A glimmer of the impact is witnessed in Philly311’s customer satisfaction rating: a robust 93 percent since launch. Lue will likewise continue collecting metrics on usage. And the city has had recent success — admittedly driven on multiple fronts  —  on some of its problems, such as safety and city appeal. Negrin said unemployment rates are the lowest in more than a decade. And crime is at the lowest rate since 1967.

“Five years ago, there were 29 percent of our post-grads staying in Philadelphia; today that number is 49 percent,” Negrin said. “The city’s population is growing for the first time in 60 years.”

The Philly311 refresh and innovation blueprint is geared to push progress. However, Negrin sees it doing so behind the scenes, systematically, with residents as the catalyst.

“What we want to do is create culture change and increase neighborhood pride in a way where people are constantly motivated to maintain and take care of their community, to do so in a way the city can only hope to do sporadically.”

Nutter talks of community gardens the city has installed to replace vacant lots infested with crime, removing old structures and decaying vegetation used as drug drops, and other ways the city has used 311 service requests to systematically recapture blighted zones.

And as Negrin noted, "Innovation is not just about doing cool things from a technology perspective, it’s really about helping people. Public service is customer service.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.