311 Systems Can Improve Government Service

The International City/County Management Association recently released the first in a series of studies, "Call 311: Connecting Citizens to Local Government." The case study explains how the system generates new data, which in turn helps the city improve and measure performance and allocate resources effectively.

The San Antonio study is the first step in a two-year nationwide examination of 311 and related government customer service technology. The ICMA is using a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to explore how local governments use the systems to serve citizens and improve constituent relations, as well as to identify obstacles to implementation.

The Federal Communications Commission reserved the use of 311 for national non-emergency use in 1996. Though San Antonio and other local governments have improved efficiency in complaint resolution, budgeting, resource allocation, and policy-making by using 311, many local governments have been slow to take advantage of the system, which allows non-emergency communications between governments or government agencies and citizens.

The system, which can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, tracks citizen complaints and requests until resolution. In San Antonio, a resulting database gives department heads, city leaders, and council members information on what citizens most need and want, while identifying particular areas of concern. Department leaders sign service level agreements, promising to respond to complaints within a specified time, except during emergencies, which generally require more resources and time. The information also gives department heads data for budget requests. "Citizens get something that's really useful for them, and we [as local government managers] get another way to begin to understand what's out there," said San Antonio assistant city manager and CIO, Michael Armstrong, in a statement. "I'm a great believer. It should be one of the core functions of government at all levels."

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The ICMA outlined how San Antonio's IT employees integrated existing work order systems from four departments to create a new 311 call center at an initial cost of $200,000. Thirty-eight full-time employees staff the center with 33 phone lines, 33 computers, and two T-1 lines. In 2000, the call center averaged just under 45,000 calls a month. By 2006, the average call volume increased to nearly 90,000 a month.

Researchers examining the system in San Antonio found that 311 has improved communications between public servants and the city's 1.2 million citizens, while providing the city government with the means to measure its performance. It also frees up time among top government managers and elected representatives, who used to field complaints and now have more time to focus on long-term policymaking and planning.

"San Antonio not only provides good customer service, but it generates a substantial amount of data to feed into its performance and planning processes, which ultimately moves the community forward," says Robert O'Neill, executive director of the ICMA.

The city has also used 311 to assist emergency operators with situational awareness during evenings and weekends, allowing the city to map out the scope of emergencies and respond efficiently, researchers at the ICMA reported.

The introduction of 311 should center on evolution, rather than revolution, with planned build-out and continual system improvements, researchers found. Integration with existing processes and programs is critical for efficiency and success, and expansion must be well planned to avoid system overload, the study pointed out. The researchers also said call center success relies on thorough staff training and cooperation between departments.

Other cities, including New York, also have implemented 311 systems and credit them will helping to identify problems, more efficiently allocate resources, deliver better services to citizens, and save money.