May 12, 2008 By Evelina Moulder
A local government uses a centralized customer service system - sometimes called 311 - so residents can call a centralized government phone number, place requests for service and are assigned tracking numbers to monitor their requests.
Though a centralized customer service system is valuable for residents, local governments benefit too. Some big cities - Baltimore, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Houston and Dallas - have implemented these systems to ease the burden on 911 emergency systems, and they seem to be doing the trick.
The International City/County Management Association recently conducted a Local Government Customer Service Systems (311) national survey. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the survey explored successful 311 implementations and how they're used to respond to citizen needs and strengthen local government-constituent relationships.
Of 710 survey respondents, only 104 reported they use a centralized system. But the results show that not only large cities and counties are using them: Thirty-two local governments that use a centralized system have a population under 30,000. Although that number of adopters seems low, twice as many local governments are considering installing a system.
For local governments that lack systems, the major concerns were cost and the process of obtaining a 311 designation. But implementation leads to demonstrable savings, such as reduced calls to 911, and improved customer service, information, reporting and management. There are also alternatives to a 311 designation, such as an easy-to-remember, seven-digit number.
Forty-three percent of respondents - the highest percentage in the survey - cited improving their service as the impetus behind system implementation. In Los Alamos County, N.M., 311 system implementation was prompted by the overwhelming number of phone calls for information after devastating wildfires, according to the Los Alamos County KanDu/311 Contact Center, one of many reports from Call 311: Connecting Citizens to Local Government Case Study Series.
Public pressure was also identified as a factor, and poor results on citizen satisfaction surveys often prompt the exploration of a centralized system. Residents expect value for their tax dollars, and centralized customer service systems can show demonstrated areas of high performance and those needing improvement.
Technology and Logistics
A small majority of local governments, 52.2 percent, said they used off-the-shelf call intake technology. Most governments have added their customizations, and vendors are generally willing to work with clients to make modifications. For example, San Antonio, Texas, already had departments with their own call centers and work management systems, so officials designed an overlay system that works with all of the systems, according to San Antonio Customer Service/311, another report from the ICMA's Call 311 case study series.
As far as handling calls, the survey showed there isn't a consistent practice. Call intake technology and the centralized service system work hand-in-hand. Central call staff members are trained to handle the calls in 38 percent of the reporting local governments, and 28 percent said that central call staff records the call and then transfers the caller to the responsible department.
Other local governments reported that customers enter their "call" into a Web-based system, which then routes the information to the responsible department. Departments may also take calls and enter them into a centralized system.
Local governments that have implemented a 311 system recommend that not all departments go online simultaneously. They suggest going live first with the three or four departments with the highest call volume, and then adding more as the system matures.
Local governments that responded to the survey said the following services are integrated into their 311 system:
o public works (95 percent);
o code enforcement (88 percent);
o city and county management and administration (84 percent); and
o parks and recreation (81 percent).
Twenty-eight local governments have tracked the number of nonemergency calls to 911 since their centralized systems