Canadian cities call out for 311 non-emergency number

They say if you build it, they will come.

That’s especially true for city services, as the City of Chicago found when it launched its 311 non-emergency services number five years ago.

According to 311 director Ted O’Keefe, the city was so overwhelmed by the popularity of the

number it had to expand its call centre a couple of years later.

“”In that first year the demand was outrunning the supply in terms of the call centre operation, so we had some problems there where the growth came quicker than we had anticipated,”” said O’Keefe.

That’s something the City of Toronto might want to keep in mind as it waits to find out whether its application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for 311 services — filed jointly with the City of Calgary, Halifax Regional Municipality, Ville de Gatineau, Que., and the Regional Municipality of Halton, Ont. last October — will be approved.

According to Colleen Bell, manager of the corporate client services initiative at the City of Toronto, the city’s 311 application has been distributed to all the telecommunications carriers potentially affected, who had until Jan.30 to respond with their concerns in writing.

A successful application means residents will be able to access any city service through one number, and the city will be able to divert all its non-emergency calls currently made to 911.

Instead of reporting a pot hole to Rick Mercer’s Monday Report’s Biggest Pothole in Canada contest, for example, citizens might pass it on to someone who can actually do something about it — city hall.

Depending on the issues that get flagged by the telcos, it can take six months to two years before the application is approved, said Bell.

“”The kinds of things the telcos are concerned about are who will bear cost of implementation related to switch changes,”” she says. “”Another really large issue was the definition of catchment area. In the application for the municipalities it identifies municipal boundaries, which in some cases mirror 911 and 211 catchment areas (as in Toronto) and in other cases don’t (as in Calgary).””

In Toronto, 211 is the city’s community services number.

Lessons from The Windy City

For Chicago, the decision to implement a 311 number was driven by the then-looming Y2K problem as well as the city’s expansion to two area codes from one.

“”We had to make a decision about either repairing or replacing our city service system, and we decided it would be more cost efficient to replace than rebuild,”” O’Keefe said. “”Not only that, but we would get more functionality, because the old system did not generate real-time reports and it did not produce work orders.””

At the moment, the City of Toronto is undergoing a re-engineering of its business processes in anticipation of 311, Bell said.

“”We will do that whether 311 is approved or not, because we need to do some significant service improvement,”” she explained.

If approved, the 311 service would be divided into three areas: general inquiry, service transactions and customer advocacy. The major challenge in setting these streams up, said Bell, relates to areas requiring harmonization of information from each of the municipalities that are now part of the City of Toronto since amalgamation.

Funding for pilot projects in the works and emergency services, public health, and revenue services departments has been identified. Funding for the main 311 project is expected to be earmarked in the fall for the 2005 budget, Bell said.

“”Because of the size of the city we have more than 40 service areas,”” said Bell. “”We realize we won’t be able to process every single call in its entirety through 311; we may have to do call transfers. What we are going to set up in terms of a model is a main 311 team and specialized 311 teams that reside within the departments, so if you need specialized expertise, you get transferred.””

New York state of mind

That ability to transfer calls to expertise areas is essential, according to Marc Marin, a partner with Accenture’s government practice in New York. Marin, who spoke at a 311 session recently in Toronto, has been involved in New York’s 311 project since Accenture won the bid as prime contractor shortly after Michael Bloomberg became mayor.

Marin said although the city will be called about services it doesn’t provide, its challenge is to interpret those requests and direct citizens to the right place. For example, in New York, the subway is not operated by the city, but “”nine out of 10 New Yorkers wouldn’t know that,”” so they’re going to call 311 if there’s a problem, he said.

“”You don’t want to try to educate the public on who does what; you want to be able to say, ‘we’re going to interpret this for you. Even if it’s not a city service we’ll get you somebody who can help you.’””

But Toronto shouldn’t worry about having the application on every desktop in the city in order to be successful, he advised.

“”Any city that has gone down this road will tell you you have to take this in bite-sized chunks,”” Marin said. “”What you have to do Big Bang is provide directory assistance for anything the city offers from Day 1.

“”New York’s approach is, ‘Don’t try to do it all at once; don’t build out this enterprise-wide infrastructure and try to put it everywhere as a precursor to entry into this new model. Open up the doors and expand it over time.’””

Although New York is still in the process of assessing the cost benefit, Chicago has seen huge return on investment since implementing 311.

According to Chicago’s O’Keefe, the city has spent about US$8 million on 311 in hardware, software, training, support and infrastructure costs in roughly five years. But the city’s bureau of electricity, which takes care of things like traffic lights and street lights, estimated it saved US$6.9 million last year alone in avoided costs by not sending out duplicate crews when various residents call in about the same problem.

As well, the time required to fix problems has decreased dramatically, he said. The city can also establish benchmarks for service because it knows how long a job should take.

“”If you had asked me five to six years ago how long it takes to get graffiti removed, I’d say, ‘I don’t know — about a week?’ Now I can tell you it was 2.5 days average last year, down from 3.5 the year before, down from 4.6 days the year before that.

“”I can tell you which crews did how many jobs, so it provides information to make informed decisions about resource allocation, and it establishes benchmarks not only for customer service goals for individual services but performance benchmarks for individuals and crews in their own work.””

Training challenges

But while 311 has proven to be a hit with residents where it has been implemented, beyond the enormous task of mapping business processes, it takes a lot of staff training and communication to make it successful, said O’Keefe.

“”The level of technology literacy was not what we had hoped it to be, so one of the (biggest challenges) was the need to train thousands of city employees, just in using the Windows application, how to work with the system and how to configure aspects of the system,”” he said.

Marin echoed that experience.

While training was also an issue for New York – initially staff required four weeks of it — the result has been positive, he says. “”It has sort of resulted in the professionalization of this job,”” he says. “”A lot of people came from agencies where they were the afterthought, and now that they’re in a customer service organization their job satisfaction is great and their opportunities for advancement are great.””

According to Michael Jordan, associate partner with Accenture’s government operating practice in Toronto, the City of Toronto is aware it is not nearly as advanced technologically as some other Ontario municipalities, such as the City of Mississauga, for example, largely due to the immense task of amalgamation.

“”I think if you talk to people in (Toronto Mayor David) Miller’s office they’re aware of challenges the city faces,”” he said. “”They look at neighbouring municipalities and I think they appreciate they’ve got a ways to go to catch up.””

Accenture, which wants to get involved in Toronto’s 311 project, is also in discussions with clients such as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada about developing a single number for citizen services, Jordan said.

“”They are looking at it as part of modernizing their service; they’re looking at consolidating their call centre strategy so you have a single number to call for a variety of government requests,”” Jordan said. “”Recently there have been encouraging signals between the provincial and federal governments because citizens don’t understand the differences between the various levels of government.””

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