311’s Coming Transformations

Much has been accomplished with the widespread deployment of these citizen-service systems. In the future, they will do much more.
by | April 18, 2012
 

This year, Indianapolis will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Mayor's Action Center, its centralized 311 call center. It was born out of my own unnerving start as mayor. When I asked the staff if I could begin my first day in office answering constituents' calls for services, they asked me which of the 10 places that answer phones I wished to visit.

As Indy celebrates this anniversary, it also trumpets continuing improvements in customer-relations management, the tight connection of 311 data into the city's "stat" program and more. These efforts parallel the build-out of 311 centers around the country, including widely celebrated successes in Baltimore, Chicago and New York City.

Two decades later, now is a good time to reflect both on how much has been accomplished and how a transformative approach can change the relationship between citizens and their governments. New York City, for example, effectively responds to more than 22 million calls a year, providing well prepared responses and using excellent tracking software. There is no buck-passing; there are no untracked service requests.

As many cities now strive to emulate these successes, the existing call centers continue to improve the clarity of their response scripts, make better use of automated systems and intensify efforts to link their call-center software to their departments' work-order systems. This latter improvement not only eliminates the need for double entry of data but also enhances fulfillment and follow up.

At the same time, however, we are at the cusp of truly generational 311 changes that fall into two groups: those that help the current model work better and those that transform the model as well as the relationship between city hall and citizens. In the first category, for example, cities are now investigating both better voice recognition and advances in interactive voice response technology. New York City also is doing exciting pilots with new channels for communication, including using a partner to provide high-quality text responses to incoming texts from citizens seeking information from the 311 center. This process provides the flexibility to handle surge capacity, as shown last year when Hurricane Irene prompted tens of thousands of additional 311 calls in a short timeframe. Moving to a seamless, multichannel communications platform -- one that can accommodate tweets, Facebook posts, texts and more with minimum friction using a variety of devices -- is obviously a requirement.

Yet even advancing the ways in which citizens request services — from paper, to phone, to interactive voice response, to social networking — assumes a traditional type of call center. The New York text pilot is the bridge to a dramatically different future. As Joe Morrisroe, the insightful director of NYC 311, says, we are now moving from a "burden-on-citizen" approach to a "citizen-as-sensor" model. One step in that process involves advancing more than just a transparency initiative but one in which the 311 director provides open data sets to community groups, as Morrisroe has done, and asks them for insights into solutions. In addition, customer surveys — outbound 311 calls, texts or tweets — that sample satisfaction by service type and geographical area provide insights into where service is exemplary or lagging.

To Morrisroe's list I would add a third model, one that might be called "citizen as partner in fashioning or identifying a solution." Finding collaborative ways for constituents who identify a common problem to work together offers real value. With today's 311 systems, three individuals in a neighborhood might complain about the same issue and not know of each other, let alone be aware of an individual in the area who might have a solution.

Today the very existence of 311 is based on the idea that when citizens need help or have a question, government has the answers. But answers reside everywhere; questions, answers and suggestions must be exchanged in a much more open forum. A more open and collaborative approach raises issues for public officials concerning how information is organized and captured and whether the information is provided by a strategic partner or trusted site or government itself. For example, is three times as much information collected from many and available to all with a 5 percent error rate better or worse than scripted answers to a much smaller universe of questions?

Whatever the answer, the availability of all that information signals the emergence of government as a provider of preemptive services. The future will include applying analytics to 311 data to solve problems before they occur — predicting where a person might fall or a sewer will back up and preventing it rather than merely responding after the fact.

And there will be lots more data to work with. There is much to celebrate in the new Open 311 movement, with cities developing new applications, often through contests like New York City's BigApps, and then making them available to other cities. Clearly the successes of 20 years ago are setting a transformative stage for the future.

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