Beyond 311

By Sean Thornton • January 7, 2014

  • JANUARY 7, 2014
  • 311

“Burning building? Call 911. Burning question? Call 311.”

In 1999, this simple slogan helped popularize an innovative new service for Chicago residents. While Baltimore first used 311 as a police non-emergency number in 1996, Chicago expanded the concept by developing a first-of-its kind constituent resource management (CRM) program, connecting residents to all facets of city government. Since the late 90’s, dialing 311 for city services and information has become a staple of urban life in many American cities.

Today, however, municipal customer service management isn’t just a phone call. Customer service requests—CSRs—are taking on an increasing number of forms. In New York, 311/CSR services now include Twitter and an online reporting service. Philadelphia offers a 311 app for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry, where users can text requests or send pictures. And in Chicago, specific requests made by an individual—say, for storm debris removal—can be monitored from start to finish on the city’s 311 Service Tracker, providing residents with a personalized new form of accountability.

All these changes mean that municipal customer service isn’t as easy to define as it once was. As cities quickly add more apps and other communication outlets, they need to develop organized CRM models—or risk creating an amorphous collection of disparate systems. With an organized system, cities can not only manage multiple work order streams and enhance service delivery, but capitalize on a treasure trove of CSR data for analytics use.

Seeking to overhaul its CRM system for the first time since 1999, Chicago recently issued a request for proposals (RFP) to, as described in the document, “not only replace the City’s current technology, but to provide a holistic, transformative solution to help the City of Chicago provide world-class resident relationship management services.”

This means that, like it did 15 years ago, Chicago hopes to leverage today’s technology to change how residents interact with the city.

Building a New CRM Model

If touch-tone phones are the traditional tool for accessing 311/CRM, then the web portal is their contemporary successor. Chicago’s RFP envisions a newly-developed 311 web portal that will be the “public face” for city services, and will be the go-to resource for real-time resident interaction through multiple communications channels. This includes access to mobile and mobile apps, texting, tweeting, web-based self-service requests, email, and the service tracker. The goal here is for residents to have easy access to a more open, two-way form of communication with the city.

For most residents, however, convenient access still means dialing 311 on their phone. In 2012, 74% of all CSRs in Chicago were submitted via phone; only 7% of all service requests were through the Internet. Moreover, many residents don’t have the immediate access or skills needed to utilize Internet-related channels to request services.

Yet a closer look at 2012’s CSR numbers offers room for improvement that a modernized CRM system could offer. That year, half of all calls were actual service requests—the other half was general service questions. If more general service questions are answerable through alternative channels, then Chicago’s 311 call center staff can focus more on processing actual service requests. This enables the new CRM system to serve as a central knowledge base that can be accessed by both residents and city staff.

In 1999, the logic was similar: Chicago’s adoption of 311 helped alleviate the burden of having to deal with too many non-emergency calls and requests that the city’s 911 call center then faced.

Beyond Customer Service

In the past few years, Chicago has established itself as a leader in using municipal data not only for transparency, but predictive analytics. For much of the city’s work in this sphere, 311/CSR data is essential. For example, such data was essential for Chicago’s recent pilot program to predict “rat hot spots” to aid municipal rodent-baiters. Chicago envisions that with a modernized CRM system, it will be able to better feed 311 data into other systems to use for advanced analytics.

With more readily available and easily-processed CRM data, Chicago will then be able to provide its departments with the opportunity for more data-driven decision making and enhanced service delivery. Furthermore, the city plans to leverage CRM data metrics as an accountability tool, providing the city and local elected officials with the ability to monitor service delivery levels.

And while a new CRM system is the centerpiece of Chicago’s plans, building it is not the only requirement of a potential vendor. The RFP emphasizes that the new system is “strictly a tool”—and accordingly, any submitted bid must include a proposed plan for engaging and educating residents about the new system. The more residents report CSRs, the more effective cities can be at self-maintenance. As Chicago remembers from its public education campaign in 1999, the benefits of resident engagement cannot be understated.

This time, however, residents can do much more than call if they have a burning question.

About the Author

Sean Thornton

Sean Thornton is a Program Advisor for the Ash Center's Civic Analytics Network and writer for Data-Smart City Solutions.  Based in Chicago and working in partnership with the city's Department of Innovation and Technology, Sean holds joint Masters’ degrees from the University of Chicago, in Public Policy and Social Service Administration. His work has spanned the city's public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.