Municipal Localities Using 311 Systems to Provide Better Service to CitizensEver need to locate a municipal service and not sure who to call? Placing a call to City Hall can be a very confusing endeavor. Many citizens, not knowing who to contact, inevitably call the wrong number and are faced with the frustration of being transferred around from department to department. This type of inefficiency causes problems for both the citizen and the city employee. The person with the question or problem ends up being forced to retell their story, while overtaxed workers are drawn into issues that are not at all related to their departments. Worse yet, some frustrated citizens resort to calling the emergency 911 system when all else fails...
All across the country, cities and counties are implementing "311 Systems" for non emergency citizen requests. Like 911 systems, 311 call centers assist citizens inside their jurisdictions and resolve issues through approved 'answers' contained in the center's 'knowledge base' repository. If the call involves a service that must be scheduled to a city/county department, the 311 call center staff creates a 'ticket' and assigns workflow tasks to the appropriate employees to provide an action. The trend is toward integrated 311 call centers that consolidate non-emergency service requests across all municipal agencies in a city or county government. These systems go far beyond the original vision of service request management to providing streamlined call reporting. As a result some 311 systems handle calls for all municipal services, such as scheduling inspections, obtaining building permits, locating assessments, etc. In addition, 311 employees are trained to deal with 911 emergency calls and can assist in case of large scale emergencies.
For many localities, the original goal was modest: reduce the volume of non emergency calls to 911 operators by establishing a new 311 phone number. In the process, though, many localities discovered the value of a single point of contact for the private sector. Baltimore was the first city to install 311 in 1996. Within two months, 42% of 911 calls went instead to 311, greatly improving emergency-response times.
"311 has been a miracle. It has been a godsend for us," says Ed Harris, emergency communications director for the Austin Police Department, which launched its program a week after September 11. "311 saved us not only from having our 911 system swamped but saved our citizens who had true emergencies, such as heart attacks and crimes in progress, from getting a busy signal."
Local Governments are reporting huge benefits. "A 311 system changes the way a city [county] runs itself," says Jeffrey Ford, professor at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, who worked with one of his graduate classes to develop a 311 plan for the City of Columbus, Ohio. "Cities become much more performance-oriented and delivery-oriented. There is more accountability, and it becomes very clear which departments or divisions are not working well." The 311 system increases worker productivity, reduce operating costs and helps the city leverage its existing resources in dealing with quality of life issues.
A 311 system also speaks to the growing trend of "transparency in government." Citizens like to be able to "reach out and touch" their government. People simply want an answer to their question, or to feel like someone cares enough to hear them out and take action to resolve their problem. For citizens who are willing to go the extra mile, some localities are even allowing them the option to search for and find their own answers in an on-line knowledge center tied to the city's website. In an age where citizens are demanding access to information and local governments are trying to reduce or re-route call volumes, implementing a 311 system is a wise investment for any locality. With "311" - - Everybody Wins!