Citizen response through 311: Secrets of success

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. “That has been one of the reasons for its success.” 

Dan Israel, manager of state and local government solutions for Siebel Systems Inc., agrees.

“I think a lot of it has to do with having strong leadership in place, and having a clear idea of what the organization is trying to do when they launch this initiative. It’s very much not just a technology initiative; CRM initiatives need to be about driving change in the way governments are providing customer service.” 

And 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. The Motorola product is about the problem, not the customer, so it doesn’t matter who called it in. Fifteen people called this morning about a flashing red light at a major intersection, and we didn’t take their names.”

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.”

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 lot of talent in the city,” says Baltimore CIO Elliot Schlanger. “IT people have worked a long time and we had them 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.”

Baltimore outsourced the infrastructure piece of its 311 project, so IT people performed some tasks not typical of projects in the past, he says. For example, they had to become business process engineers in order to understand how the city needs to respond to requests from citizens.

The IT department also now tracks the levels of performance of every agency in city and sees how quickly the city is able to respond. “Really, it’s a good feeling to know the IT folks were at the core of that, so it’s a pretty good thing for the resume, indeed.” 

The IT department’s job descriptions are not the only thing that a 311 project will change, though.

There is a tendency to think if a city creates a beautiful building with professional customer service agents and a modern phone system and is able to answer the phone in under six seconds, and have an abandon rate of under two per cent, it’s problem solved, notes Schlanger. However, he adds, “If in the end the jurisdiction is not able to deliver the service within the expectation of the caller, then everything else will fail.”

The reality is although there may be some operational efficiencies or cost avoidance for some cities through the consolidation of call centres, 311 will most likely put huge pressures on municipalities as they struggle to meet service level demands, says Windsor’s Malanfant.

“This wasn’t a purchase that the city made with a business case in mind, it was made solely to improve customer service and accountability within the community,” he says. “It was council’s direction to make government more accessible and accountable, and that probably will result in increased costs.” 

Malanafant explains that departments are going to get more calls but they’re not going to get more staff to deal with those additional calls, so it’s going to put upward pressure on their budgets. But, he says, “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, then they’re able to say, ‘we need to increase the resources assigned to that area of the organization.’”

Once municipalities have worked through all the business process changes and the technology issues related to 311 projects, the next step is to focus on case management, says Siebel’s Dan Israel.

“I think the next step is to have a means to manage and track the life cycle of citizen interaction through some kind of software application or tools,” he says. “It’s one thing to be able to take some incoming inquiries — these ‘one and done’ type of requests are easy to handle — but when you get into complex interactions with citizens, such as ‘my property tax bill is wrong and I need someone to look at this,’ you want to make sure you are tracking all these interactions with people over the course of time and over different departments, because a lot of the issues city governments are trying to address are not just handled by a single department.

“Sometimes the issues span many different agencies and they need to have a way of managing complex processes over time and of sharing information among different agencies so each can act appropriately in the right order.”

It’s tempting, given the amount of glowing press 311 has generated, to wonder whether it is one type of project that puts the public sector in a position of leading the private sector. 

Tempting, perhaps, but wrong, says Israel.

“I think certainly the public sector has benefited a lot from the lessons learned from the private sector,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “I think there are still a lot of government agencies struggling to provide the same level of customer service you get when you call your bank or phone company. But I some of the very successful projects we have worked on, like New York, are very highly thought of in the city of New York and it wouldn’t surprise me if people in New York aren’t starting to say, ‘you know I wish such and such company could provide as good a service as the city does.’”

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