Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Beyond Customer Service: Cities and the Breathtaking Promise of 311

These customer-service systems are evolving into far more than a way to get a pothole filled or graffiti cleaned up.

A few weeks ago at Harvard, some of the country's leading 311 directors, chief innovation officers, chief information officers and chiefs of staff convened under the sponsorship of Living Cities to talk about the future of 311. The observations from this group of creative civil servants were fascinating in how they revealed both the dynamic opportunities and the uncertainties facing governments as these customer service systems spread and evolve.

Moreover, these discussions demonstrated how much converging technologies have changed even basic assumptions about public services -- so much so that it's getting hard to even define the specific purpose of the most advanced of these customer-relationship-management systems. Try this exercise: Is 311 ...

• A centralized customer service call center?

• A multimedia hub for residents to communicate in any way they wish -- via a smartphone app, texting, a phone call or a dedicated website -- with their governments?

• A platform for community engagement that connects residents with others of common interest, "listens" to social media comments and no longer is limited to waiting for a complaining resident to ask government for help?

• A rich source of open data that can inform residents about issues in their communities and provide them with the information they need to better understand those issues?

• A data-powered tool for augmenting performance-focused stat programs and for grading and enhancing government's customer service efforts?

This column appears in our monthly Better, Faster, Cheaper email newsletter. Click to subscribe.

The most advanced 311-type systems are or soon will be all of these and more. Some cities already have begun to embrace multichannel input into their customer service systems. Phone calls are no longer the only way people want to communicate with city hall. Increasingly, residents also can communicate with their local governments through a live Web chat, tweet, text or mobile app.

In Boston, a pair of mobile apps has changed both how residents interact with government and how public employees approach their work. Citizens Connect is a simple app that allows people to submit geotagged photos of potholes, graffiti or other visible problems and then track the status of the city's response. Its internal equivalent is called City Worker. Now used by all of the city's public-works employees, the app not only directs them to problem spots but also allows them to open new cases in the field.

In Philadelphia, police officers have access to 311 data from the laptops in their vehicles. They can see location-based information, such as previous complaints about a vacant property. Officers can draw on that 311 data to communicate with the community, such as letting residents know when a property is scheduled for an inspection.

The capability to organize multiple input channels and send them out in real time to the field worker who is actually using the information has potential beyond simply getting a pothole filled quickly. It holds the promise of harnessing predictive analytics to identify problems and, directing the work of multiple departments, rectify them before they become apparent.

Chicago already has begun to integrate information flowing into its 311 system with its other data for such analytics purposes. The city found, for example, that calls about garbage correlate to a future spike in rat populations and uses that information to proactively target certain areas for rodent control.

Want more management news and commentary? Click here.

As these examples illustrate, government need not be the source of all information or the solution to every problem. City hall should work as a platform to connect communities to each other, giving residents a way to partner with neighbors to prevent problems and collectively solve others. Advanced systems might even enhance "official" information with data supplied by residents essentially acting as sensors -- for instance, a road-closing notice combined with tweets about alternate routes gathered from the public in real time.

Dozens of local governments now are in the process of upgrading and rethinking their 311 approaches at a time when the social web and ubiquitous technology tie people together as never before. This process will be difficult, but at the same time it will be breathtaking in how it will fundamentally enhance government's responsiveness.

Special Projects