Cities Aim to Cut 311 Costs Without Affecting Services

Budget belt-tightening has put the cost of 311 calls under a microscope. And while few cities would contemplate pulling the plug on these popular systems, many are looking for ways to rein in expenses.
by | June 1, 2012

By Justine Brown

When Baltimore became the first city to introduce a dedicated 311 call center for nonemergency government services in 1996, no one was sure what kind of response it would get. But once constituents caught wind of the new service, it took off — the call center now handles nearly 1 million calls a year. Many other cities have followed suit, introducing 311 call centers that allow citizens to ask questions or report everything from public safety and quality of life concerns to health and sanitation complaints.

But with the recession squeezing city budgets, all expenses are under scrutiny. And 311 systems, despite their popularity with both city managers and constituents, are no exception. Over the past couple of years, the costs of 311 calls and 311 call centers have received a closer look, and some of the results have been surprising. A recent 15-city study of 311 by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the average cost per 311 call is $3.39. Detroit came in with the highest cost per call at a whopping $7.78. Given that many cities handle hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of calls per year, those costs add up dramatically, causing some to question whether constituent convenience is worth the cost.

“We consider 311 one of the most used and most critical city services, but there is considerable cost involved. At a time when budgets are tight, it’s a concern,” said Joseph Morrisroe, executive director of NYC 311, the nation’s largest 311 system.

311 call centers were originally expected to save cities money by prompting agencies to operate more efficiently. But that hasn’t necessarily played out, according to Spencer Stern, who has spent more than 10 years as a 311 consultant. “Most localities have not undertaken methodical cost benefit analysis of 311,” said Stern, president of Stern Consulting. “I think part of the reason they haven’t is they are worried that it could be negative.”

But why are 311 calls so expensive? According to Stern, 70 to 80 percent of a call center’s cost is tied to employee compensation. The next highest costs typically are attributed to software or hardware. Complicating the issue is the fact that cities have different ways of accounting for 311 costs, and some include things that others do not, making an apples-to-apples comparison impossible. Yet in the majority of cases, it’s clear that providing 311 services isn’t cheap. Given ongoing budget challenges, are there better options for delivering nonemergency services?

Several cities recently have launched online options. In September 2011, Baltimore expanded its 311 services through a mobile app that lets citizens use their smartphones to report problems and request services. New York City also launched online alternatives. “We’ve started to work in the social media channels, primarily Twitter,” Morrisroe said. “We realized we needed to shift more traffic online, because answering voice calls is expensive. This gives us another option.”

NYC 311 handles 20 million calls a year, sometimes more than 200,000 calls per day. So far, the online options haven’t slowed the call center volume much, according to Morrisroe. Part of the reason may be inherent in the name. “Because our name is 311, people tend to call.”

But online alternatives may be helping to accomplish another goal: reaching an audience that’s much more comfortable using mobile apps and smartphones than landlines. “This kind of self-service channel is a win-win for the tech-savvy constituent and for us,” Morrisroe said. “The constituent gets the information delivered in the manner they prefer while the costs are much lower for us. We are reaching a new set of customers, but not necessarily reducing call volume.”

Stern agrees. “These other channels often attract more constituents but won’t necessarily reduce calls,” he said. “While mobile self-service use is growing, I think it’s reaching a new and different, more tech-savvy audience that probably wouldn’t use the phone in the first place. But if you take a look at the call volumes, the primary way citizens are connecting with their government is still via phone. The concept of the call center is not going to go away regardless of how many other channels become available.”

Still, online alternatives to 311 calls generally are very inexpensive to launch, giving cities little to lose. “There are almost zero barriers to entry,” said Morrisroe. “There isn’t a lot of capital needed to offer online options. Because we already had 311 Online, we had our resource data available so it was very easy to dip into that for texting and using Twitter.”

While online interaction may not be the solution cities are seeking to reduce costs, other forms of technology are helping streamline or automate some 311 processes.

“Some municipalities are looking at ways to reduce the cost of calls by using interactive voice response (IVR) systems, providing more information while people are on hold so they don’t have to talk to someone live,” said Stern. “These are quite common when there are things like snow emergencies, or when a special event is going on. IVR systems have been successful in giving the citizens what they want quickly without using a live operator.”

In addition, the use of computer telephony integration (CTI) in some citieshas helped decrease 311 costs. “CTI allows call takers to capture names, email addresses, etc., automatically, which can enhance data quality and cut down the per-call cost,” Stern said. “Capturing that information automatically reduces the amount of time needed on the phone. CTI is expensive but it can be worth it.”

Customer relationship management (CRM) tools also are being widely used to improve efficiency. “CRM has really been a success for us in terms of efficiency and managing the intake process,” said Kim Wilson, assistant commissioner of IT for Cleveland, which launched its 311 system in 2009. “By using CRM to identify the most critical type of services that have the biggest impact on citizens, we were able to improve service levels. The communication between the intake process and back-end process is working very well, allowing field workers to focus more specifically on the work they need to do out in the field and making them more efficient and effective.”

Other technology-based tools help constituents locate information on their own. In February 2011, New York launched NYC 311’s Service Request Map as part of the NYC Simplicity effort to make government more customer-focused, innovative and efficient. The map gives the public access to location-specific information about 311 complaints filed across 15 major categories. It shows all open and recently closed service requests lodged across the city over the past year. Users can view a list of the service requests at a location and the steps taken to resolve the issues.

New York also uses technology to manage and optimize call-taker schedules. “The budget issues have challenged us, but they haven’t caused us to lower our standards,” Morrisroe said. “We don’t subscribe to hurrying the call along, or similar tactics some others do. Instead, we figured out how to adjust to less staff and to use technology to optimize the way we run the business.”

Morrisroe said 311 demand in New York City fluctuates as the seasons change, and those shifts can happen very quickly. “In the winter months, we get more early morning calls. In the summer, we tend to get calls later, like noise complaints,” he said. “We’ve been able to adjust our way of staffing, leveraging technology to meet the quality and accessibility standards we set for ourselves.”

Scrutinizing the information that call takers supply to callers also can help. “We have more than 4,000 different pieces of information we can offer customers,” Morrisroe added. “When the budget cuts took effect, we reviewed that information and improved and streamlined the language call takers were using. We wanted the language to be lean and easy to understand, which also resulted in shorter talk times.”

Despite the high costs, cities don’t appear to be slowing their migration to 311. In fact, many are pushing forward with faith that the increased efficiency, streamlined processes and customer satisfaction they achieve will ultimately pay off.

“Before we started working on 311, there were more than 200 city phone numbers in the Yellow Pages,” said Shaun Yunt, community relations supervisor for Tempe, Ariz., whose 311 system is currently in the pilot phase. The city’s 311 went live in early May, Yunt said, and the mobile app will launch in July. “One thing we heard from residents is that the city provided excellent service when they get to the right place. But it was often tedious for residents to get to the right place, and they were often transferred a lot. 311 will help us provide the kind of efficient customer service we want to be known for.”

Tempe’s 311 call center was born at the same time the city was reorganizing, providing an opportunity to centralize services. “Because we were downsizing, we really needed to become more efficient in how we delivered services,” Yunt said. “By grouping the calls into one place and grouping the administrative tasks under the 311 umbrella, we found we could do more with less.”

Yunt said Tempe plans to offer online options as part of the new system, such as Web-based submissions and a mobile app. “We are not cutting edge, but we are definitely interested in trying to provide as many different options for our community as we can,” he said. “Diversity is a big factor for us. We have a huge university here with a lot of young people who demand mobile options.”

Wilson in Cleveland agrees that 311 has been worth the costs thus far, despite the fact that the city launched its service during what may have been the lowest point in the economic slowdown. “The cost is relative to your budget and what you expect,” she said. “Our feasibility study showed the cost would be $1 million and that it would take 15 call takers to support about a million calls citywide. Right now, we are at seven call takers and 400,000 calls. Fortunately we purchased software that was scalable so we have actually spent less than expected so far.”

Cleveland also didn’t find it necessary to build out a new facility for their call center. “Often the 311 costs figure in a new facility,” she said. “We were able to build within ITS, so for us those costs were less than anticipated.”

Regardless of cost, most city leaders agree that 311 call centers act as a proverbial “front door” to their city, and finding a way to fund them even in tight times is an undertaking well worth the effort. Stern said the desire to offer human interaction to constituents via a live 311 call center is a common theme. “Technology is an important tool, but everyone I’ve worked with — from city managers to county executives — is also very much focused on human interaction,” he said. “They realize having that human touch is important to their constituents — no matter what the cost.”

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