Do cities need to own 311?

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. “You look at your capabilities to meet those targets and you do a cost/benefit analysis. In the case of a city some matters related to security and privacy need to be considered as well before you make a decision for outsourcing. But in most of the cases I’ve seen, such as New York and Chicago, they leverage lots of outside vendors, but basically the call centre belongs to the city itself.”

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. “In developing our 311 approach we wanted to ensure we encompassed all sizes of municipalities – we didn’t want it to be just for the big players,” says Hines. “We’ve got many ways to offer our technologies and solutions, whether it’s customer-owned and operated, or hosted by Telus in one of our state-of-the-art centres across Canada or perhaps as a shared service. We have had discussions with municipalities on being able to share services and to offer 311 more on a regional basis. 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 on to the people delivering the service, escalate it, and close the loop upon confirming completion of the transaction. “It is a complete automation of our customer contacts,” says Prentice. Newmarket’s initial launch automated 25 public processes. Phase 2 will automate an additional 25 services, and the final phase, which was scheduled for July, is online self-service.

“We took the strategy that we were going to get all routine inquiries dealt with in one centre,” Prentice says. “A municipality has about 50 lines of business, and we recognize there is a second tier of non-routine interactions that are more specialized, take more time and may involve more visits and steps. We don’t try to do those in our customer service centre, but we do try to make sure that if there is a contact for those second tier services, when they come to the customer service centre their next stop is exactly person they need.”

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 31l 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.” That’s something worth working towards, he adds.

“311 in our jurisdiction would need to be coordinated regionally and locally. It would require the creation of another agency that would serve us or quite a remarkable partnership between the different levels of government.”

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.”

That’s still being looked at, he says, but the region has already invested in basic linkage, meaning it has telephone trunks from Halton Region into a common reception within all the local area municipalities as well as the co-ordinated care community access centres.

“We have exchanges that cross the boundaries most prominently between Oakville and Mississauga,” he says. “Right now the telcos have a proposal in front of the CRTC that is proposing how to address that issue. They have to figure out which households are on which side of the border. The idea is that is a cost that will be borne by the telcos. However, the telcos are suggesting something else, and that’s being worked out.”

In any case, he adds, Halton, which is the only Canadian jurisdiction using Siebel’s Citizen Response 311 CRM suite, has decided it will proceed with 311 across the whole of the region.

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