We built this city on 311

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, Pearce says.

“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, due to be ready by this fall, 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.

“So if someone in the call centre types in ‘barking dog’ they’re referred to our bylaw,” he says.

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 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.”

Baltimore’s system allows users to get many of their questions answered via a self-serve IVR system, with the option of transferring to a live agent. Citizens can also access the same system online.

VoIP to the rescue 

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 evaluating the feasability of 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.”

Tomorrow: Is this something cities should outsource?

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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