In most Canadian cities, you still have to let your fingers do the walking to find the right number to call about a city service. But by the time they walk through the pages and pages of blue book listings, chances are your fingers will be worn to the bone. That’s why a growing number of Canadian cities are following the lead of their U.S. counterparts in offering citizens much-improved access to municipal services via a 311 system.311, which is essentially a one-stop-shopping number for municipal government services, has long been in place in U.S. cities such as Baltimore, New York and Chicago.
Originally designed to reduce the number of non-emergency calls being made to 911, 311 has evolved to become a watershed in the modernization of city services. Citizens can call it for any municipal issue, ranging from reporting potholes to requesting city support services.
“We’re seeing that trend not only across North America but extending around the globe,” says Michael Jordan, a partner in Accenture’s government practice.
In Canada, Calgary recently rolled out its 311 system, as has Windsor, Ont. and Gatineau, Que. As well, the Ontario municipalities of Hamilton, Halton Region and Toronto are all at various stages of the same process, as are the Quebec municipalities of Laval and Montreal. Halifax has also received a 311 licence, and a number of other municipalities have at least begun the process of call centre consolidation in anticipation of their own implementations.
“In any business … you’ve got to have an inventory of all the tasks you need to perform and you need to measure how well you do it,” says Elliot Schlanger, CIO of Baltimore. “To think cities could run efficiently without a tool like this is really hard to imagine.”
What’s behind the push?
For the City of Calgary, it was the need for improved customer satisfaction ratings, says Terry Pearce, manager of the city’s citizen services. Customer service satisfaction surveys had consistently given the City of Calgary high marks, but there was always a ‘but’ statement, he says: people complained they had to wade through too many blue pages of listings to find the right department.
But before going ahead with the project, the city wanted to make sure a 311 system was really the solution. “We took this to focus groups of citizens to see if they even wanted this,” he says. “The question kept surfacing: Are we doing something that isn’t even wanted? But it came out loud and clear in those (focus groups) that the city is approaching one million people, we’re all working different shifts and times, and they really did want extended, easier access.”
As well, he adds, citizens wanted to know what was being done about their complaints. “Those were the really big themes: I have an expectation that you will do what I ask you to do, and I want to tell you what needs to be done on my schedule, not yours.”
The City of Windsor, Ont., which debuted its 311 system in late August, has the same goals. Although it’s a smaller-scale operation than Calgary’s, Windsor, with a population of just over 300,000, has built some unique features into its 311 system.
For example, it is in the process of implementing a reverse 311 capability, which was due to be ready by last fall, and which will be integrated with the city’s GIS system, says 311 project director Tom Malanfant. That means the city can select an area on the local map and the customer service software will generate a list of phone numbers that are in the database for the area. An auto-dialler will deliver a pre-recorded message to those people.
“We just need to get the numbers into the database, and the way we will do that is basically through a marketing campaign in which we’ll tell the public if they want to be notified in the case of a boiled water advisory they can register by calling 311,” Malanfant says. “We’re hoping to be able to use that for all types of municipal applications. For example, maybe there’s been a bad storm in the winter and we need to get in and have all the cars moved off a street so we can clear off the snow.”
Windsor, which partnered with Enwin Utilities on the project, is using Motorola’s contact centre software and Bell Canada as a service provider. The Motorola software works like an electronic table of contents, explains Malanfant.
All of the keywords on the city’s existing web site have been indexed into a database and linked with the URL related to that information. Creating that database was the most labour-intensive part of the project, says Malanfant, but it was worth it.
“The knowledge base piece is by far the most complicated to implement but it’s also the most rewarding in terms of what you can get for your customers,” he says.
That depends on how well the city has managed its documentation in the past, though, warns Baltimore’s Schlanger. “There is a difficult challenge in trying to provide automated tools to customer service agents to handle those types of request efficiently,” says Schlanger. “One extreme is to solely rely on the expertise of the agents who have been with the city a long time, which sounds like a good idea, but you can never have enough of them to adequately cover the turf 24×7.
“The other side is there are a lot of technology purveyors who say (they) have very good search tools so (they) can give you a browser-based app where, if you put in a keyword, it will search all your city documentation and find the appropriate information that the customer service agent can recite to your caller.
“But if the city has not done a good job in terms of documentation management, it may pick articles off the Web that may not even apply to the city, which we’ve seen in demo many times.”
VoIP part of the process
But if 311 is the stepping stone to a more modern way of delivering municipal services, voice over IP is the path, according to some experts.
“We’re finding voice over IP is leading into a 311 strategy,” says Kim Hines, product manager for Telus’s 311 product. “We have several municipalities in Ontario that have started the implementation of VoIP, which has led to discussions about a 311 solution.”
Brian Sharwood, principal with the SeaBoard Group, agrees.
“A lot of the call centres need the ability to redirect calls to the right location and do it seamlessly so you’re not jumping out or reforwarding,” he says. “So if you’re upgrading your phone system, it is a good time to put in 311 systems, and if you’re putting in 311 systems, it’s time to upgrade your call centres, so both do run in tandem.”
Although the City of Mississauga, Ont., wasn’t even contemplating a 311 system when it first embarked on its voice over IP project in late 2000, says Norm Baxter, project manager for the city’s Cisco implementation, it would be easier to offer 311 with VoIP already in place. The municipality is looking at offering a 311 service, pending council approval of the IT department’s business case, and is in the process of consolidating its 12 call centres, says Nancy Major, project director, call centre consolidation for the IT services division of Mississauga’s corporate services department.
Major notes Mississauga is well-positioned for 311 because it already has call routing capabilities.
“One of the features of our system is skills-based routing, whether you define a skill as a language or specific knowledge of an agent,” explains Major. “It gives an organization the ability to route the call to the best skilled and trained agent to handle that particular call type.”
Should you build it or buy it? That’s the questionCities also need to decide whether to take a phased-in approach or to do an implementation in steps
One of the decisions municipalities have to make in implementing a 311 program is whether or not to outsource the call centre or to train existing staff to provide the service in-house. But that decision should be based on the same criteria an organization would use for any IT project, says Homan Farahmand, vice-president, IT advisory at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “You should look from the perspective of the requirements from the business side – what is expected from you and the time frame you have to either build or buy that infrastructure from outside,” says Farahmand. The benefit in outsourcing 311 for Canadian municipalities, though, says Brian Sharwood, a principal at SeaBoard Group, is that it allows them to take advantage of the experiences of larger U.S. cities that have already spent the money and to learn from their mistakes. “It’s best done by the experts,” says Sharwood. “If I were a smaller city wanting to put 311 services on I would probably find the supplier for Chicago and Los Angeles and (use them) because they have gone through the learning already.”
Although experts might disagree as to the outsourcing issue, most people who have worked on 311 projects agree that a step-by-step, rather than a big-bang, do it all at once approach works best.
“We steer municipalities away from (the all at once approach),” says Kim Hines, product manager for Telus Corp.’s 311 product. “It’s very difficult to take everything on at once, from a budgetary standpoint and from a processes standpoint. It’s a huge change in business processes. It needs to be broken down and taken one step at a time to make it really beneficial to them.”
Telus, whose 311 product suite is designed to work for municipalities of all sizes, can be hosted by the customer or by Telus. “We have had discussions with municipalities on being able to share services and to offer 311 more on a regional basis,” says Hines. “The smaller ones are interested because it’s going to reduce the cost for them to be able to offer the same level of service as a Calgary or Toronto.”
Many municipalities start to move towards 311 by first implementing a single 10-digit number. The Town of Newmarket, Ont., for example, has created a single 10-digit number for the municipality’s contact centre.
“We had about 65 points of contact through the phone when we started, and about 13 just within the town office for walk-in traffic,” says Robert Prentice, Newmarket’s director of corporate services. In addition to creating a call centre and a walk-in customer service centre, the municipality co-ordinated its efforts with its Web site to make sure the information provided was consistent in all channels. Newmarket uses Telus’s CRM application HEAT, which allows the organization’s phone and walk-in staff to create a service request in its database to pass it on to the people delivering the service, escalate it, and close the loop upon confirming completion of the transaction.
And while Prentice notes that the challenge of 311 is more the business process change than the technology, there are logistical challenges that regional governments face that single-tier governments like Calgary or Toronto don’t.
That’s because while the CRTC has ruled local telcos must provide 311 within six months to municipalities who ask for it, there is some fine print, notes Hines.
“The CRTC, when it said 311 could be used by municipalities, stated clearly they could contact their local telco and within six months of notice that provider needs to activate 311,” she says. “What’s hidden in fine print further down is the fact that the routing will be exchange-based routing — which we know does not map with municipal boundaries. So yes, they can have it activated at no cost, but it needs to be mapped to exchange-based routing, if they want it mapped to their municipal boundaries.”
That’s one issue. Another is that citizens don’t want to have to know if it’s 311 for the town or 311 for the region, Prentice says — they just want to know it’s 311. “So where you have multi-tier levels of government, the challenge is creating a partnership or sister organization that takes 311 responsibility for all levels within that jurisdiction, and that is a huge organization.”
The Region of Halton, Ont., faces similar challenges. Ralph Blauel, director of technology services for Halton Region, says Halton is the second multi-tier level of government in North America (Florida’s Miami-Dade County was first) to plan on a 311 implementation. “We have to work with our local municipalities as well as other service providers in the partnership, and that includes the two school boards as well as the Halton regional police service,” he says. “What we have to decide is how far that central 311 point of access goes with respect to fulfilling the customer service request.”

311 projects can do a lot for the city — and for the IT employee’s resumeBut municipalities have to be prepared to provide the increased quality and quantity of services, too
Success and government IT projects do not always go hand in hand. Nor do customer relationship management projects and success. In fact, some research firms have pegged CRM failure rates at as high as 70 per cent. But 311 projects – a large component of which is CRM – have mostly been seen as success stories wherever they have been put in place.
That’s because unlike many IT projects in government, it’s usually the political side of the organization that is driving the adoption of 311. It’s easier for politicians to see the benefits of 311, perhaps, than it is to see the advantages of, say, voice over IP or developing a Web portal.
“One of the key success factors is having executive sponsorship both at the elected official level and at the senior official level, and for a 311 project that has to be there,” Accenture’s Michael Jordan says.
But some 311 project managers don’t see 311 as a CRM project at all.
“311 is not CRM,” says Windsor’s Tom Malanfant. “CRM is something a marketing company might use.”
Although not everyone agrees on the CRM issue, most, it appears, see many of the same benefits to implementing a 311 system. But measuring those benefits can still be a major challenge. In the long run, citizen satisfaction ratings will tell the story. In the short run, though, municipalities will have to use the same metrics as private sector call centres use.
Calgary, which has a $10 million budget for the period of 2000 to 2008 for its 311 project, is struggling to quantify the system’s success, says Terry Pearce, manager of Calgary’s citizen services.
“It has been a struggle because we were heading into totally uncharted land,” he says. “We knew what our business units were dealing with in calls, but what we didn’t know was what this would drive from people who wanted to report things but didn’t know where to call so they didn’t bother before. Now we’re getting calls from cell phones from people jogging and reporting graffiti. That was a bit of the unknown.”
But calls are not evenly distributed, although an increasing number of calls are coming in during the off-hours, says Pearce. “We have some very hot times during the day and our service levels are not what they should be, but we measure our success on how well we’re answering our phones,” he says. “We have targets of 30 seconds average speed of answer 80 per cent of the time.”
311 a career booste
And while 311 projects are popular with politicians, implementing 311 can be equally as beneficial to a city CIO’s career, according to Jordan. “For the CIO at the municipal level 311 is a real opportunity to accomplish a couple of things,” he says. “CIOs always want to be relevant to their business leadership and I think this gives them a great opportunity to bring new technology that will be valued by their customers and stakeholders.”
Baltimore’s experience suggests Canadian municipal IT managers are in for a wealth of new job experiences.
“One of the things we found here from the IT perspective is we had a lot of talent in the city,” says Baltimore CIO Elliot Schlanger.
“We have had them (IT people) in jobs like keeping their eyes on the servers to make sure all the lights were blinking green and we never really leveraged the institutional knowledge and expertise they had to really assist agencies in taking their performance to a new height. So this was great opportunity to take IT people who knew all about city operations, such as Recreation and Parks or Water and really reform how they did their day-to-day operations.”
The IT department’s job descriptions are not the only thing that a 311 project will change, though. There may be some operational efficiencies or cost avoidance through the consolidation of call centres, but 311 will most likely put huge pressures on municipalities as they struggle to meet service level demands, says Windsor’s Malanfant. Departments are going to get more calls but they’re not necessarily going to get more staff, he says. But, he notes, “The bottom line is we will have for the first time ever in our organization quantifiable objective evidence to give to city council to say here’s how many calls we’re getting on various service types and here’s the service level we can meet. If they’re happy, then nobody gets more budget, but if they say, ‘no, it’s not acceptable to deliver that service in a week, we think it should be delivered in a day,’” they can increase the resources to that department.

Share on LinkedIn Share with Google+