The 311 Contact Center in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Cities

February 22, 2017

After 20 Years of 311—Where Are We Today?

In the not-too-distant past, 911 systems in U.S. cities were overwhelmed by costly and time-consuming non-emergency calls. They ranged from frivolous (citizens upset that their pizza hadn’t been delivered) to legitimate concerns that didn’t require an immediate emergency response, such as potholes, illegally parked cars or dumped trash.

In 1996, Baltimore decided to do something about the problem. The city launched the country’s first 311 non-emergency phone hotline, a pilot project supported by a $300,000 Department of Justice grant.

The experiment proved wildly successful. Baltimore reduced by a third the number of non-emergency calls to 911. Word soon spread: Dozens of cities, interested in launching 311 services of their own, reached out to Baltimore for guidance.

Fast forward to 2016, the 20th anniversary of Baltimore’s non-emergency phone service. Today, most major U.S. communities have adopted 311 programs, and they have grown to be much more ambitious than the original 311 hotline.

The 311 system of the 21st century has evolved, and it looks much different than the original. Today, citizens use 311 programs to connect with their cities through several channels. These channels include phone, email and text, websites and mobile apps.

With the complexity of today’s 311 programs, cities are challenged to balance services consistently and effectively across each channel. And they must perform this balancing act as populations grow larger and more diverse, and as city leaders increase the pressure to reduce costs.

Operating 311 in a Multichannel Framework

Over the past 20 years, the driving strategy behind 311 has become much more complex for municipalities, as service has expanded beyond stand-alone call centers. Today, managers operate 311 programs in a multichannel framework that includes voice calls, emails, web forms, web chat, SMS text, mobile apps and social media.

Often, channel preference can be attributed to generational or cultural differences: Some citizens don’t mind spending time speaking on the telephone or using a desktop computer; others may not own a home computer and instead get their computing tasks done with a smartphone.

“There are certain demographics that just want to talk with someone and then there are others who want to use the Web or text,” said Susan Pontarelli, 311/service desk supervisor for Evanston, Ill. 1

311 managers may be tempted to focus their energies on the channel with the most volume:

typically voice calls from citizens. But voice is also the most expensive. Failing to encourage citizens to use other channels (particularly self-service) eliminates opportunities to significantly reduce 311 costs.

Bringing All Non-Emergency Services Under the 311 Umbrella

Further adding to the complexity of 311, managers are under pressure to integrate all city services into the system. Whatever channel a citizen chooses—phone, web or app—they want a clear path to the information they seek and quick resolution of their problem. Citizens get frustrated if they can’t find the answer on the web or the 311 app and are forced to dial 311 to speak to an agent. The frustration continues if the 311 agent can’t access departmental information to resolve a citizen’s problem. Transferring calls or arranging for a callback takes more time, costs more money and results in more annoyance for the customer.

311 managers must also monitor the consistency and quality of responses through each channel. A tendency to focus more time and resources on a high-volume channel such as voice can lead to poor service performance in other channels. In the city of Houston, for example, managers found inconsistencies among channels. Callers to 311 had their information put into the service-request system immediately, while app users had to wait 24 hours for their information to enter the system. Email users faced a 72-hour wait.2

In this complex environment, 311 managers are tasked with developing, implementing and continually improving a holistic customer-service strategy that “leaves no citizen behind.” It is a monumental task for sure, but fortunately customer relationship management (CRM) technology has evolved over the past two decades to support the new generation of 311 programs.  Today, cities can choose from a wide array of CRM platforms. Many of these platforms tap the power of cloud computing and are available as a subscription service, which helps with cost management. Free, open-source versions of CRM also are available.3

Self-Service is Essential

First-call resolution and average handle time are important measures of success for call centers. But given an average of cost of $3.40 per call, 4 perhaps the best metric to focus on is the successful resolution of citizen requests via self-service.

Again, a holistic approach is necessary for 311 service. Managers should develop clear self-service paths for customers over multiple channels. For citizens who prefer phone, an interactive voice-response system can be effective for submitting requests or making service appointments.

311 managers also should review the effectiveness of self-service via the web. Can citizens submit service requests or find the answers they need for service via entrance through one 311 web portal? Or do they spend an inordinate amount of time searching through an inconsistent maze of individual department sites and service request forms?

The web, mobile apps and social media are excellent channels for delivering FAQs that eliminate the need for dialing the 311 call center.

“It’s more expensive to process via phone,” said Spencer Stern, a consultant who advises cities on CRM systems. “I’m seeing a de-emphasis on these big contact centers, and more of a push to self-service.”5

Developing Effective Mobile Apps

With nearly every resident armed with a smartphone and its built-in camera, cities are taking advantage of mobile apps to deliver service while taking pressure off the 311 call center. Apps offer several useful features for both citizen and city. For example, a resident reporting illegal dumping can include a photo and the GPS coordinates of the location. Apps can be used for just about any city service, from applying for jobs to downloading a PDF of the latest city council meeting agenda. When it comes to 311 mobile apps, managers are limited only by their imaginations and, of course, their budgets.

But for 311 managers, mobile apps add another level of complexity to service. Apps require regular updates and bug fixes. Also, customers may not be receptive to the mobile app if they can’t use it to connect with the service they need.

In response, cities are working to improve the utility of their apps. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the GR311 mobile app is being expanded to funnel resident reports from four to 28 categories.6 The city of San Antonio recently requested bids for a new mobile app designed to initially support two dozen service requests, with a capability to scale to 250 categories.7

Los Angeles is counting on their mobile app to relieve the chokepoint at the 311 call center, which handles 80 percent of 1.5 million service requests each year.

“We’re increasing requests every month, but an operator can only handle so many calls a day,” says Jeanne Holm, the city’s deputy chief information officer. “I’m trying to push as much mobile as we can.”8

Encouraging Citizen Participation

A city may be able to develop the best-ever 311 app and web portal, but these tools are useless if citizens aren’t aware of them. 311 needs to have its own marketing arm, or share the resources of the city’s marketing department to promote the 311 program. Depending on the available budget, cities can use traditional marketing channels such as television and radio spots, and print and billboard promotions. The City of Evanston, Illinois uses the city’s community engagement team to get word out about the 311 app through social media and other online channels.

“We work with them to market our services by engaging the community through electronic newsletters and press releases,” said Evanston’s 311 Service Desk Supervisor Susan Pontarelli. “We even use a car that’s wrapped with messages about the city’s mobile service.” 9

Connecting Through Spanish and Other Languages

Municipalities with 311 programs serve citizens who speak languages other than English. Apps and web portals written in English will limit the participation of these residents, who can make up a significant portion of the population. Cities are eager to engage with these citizens to ensure services are being delivered effectively in their neighborhoods. Often, limited resources allow cities to only offer bilingual voice service—typically English/Spanish—via the 311 call center. In El Paso, Texas, where 70 percent of residents speak Spanish, the city government has outsourced staffing, operation and management of the 311 call center to DATAMARK, which employs agents who speak and write English and Spanish. Some communities provide Spanish-language versions of 311 web portals as well.

Los Angeles is planning to update its My311LA mobile app with a Google Translate feature. Officials hope this will help increase engagement with 311. 10

Los Angeles also is considering gamification to increase community engagement with My311LA. Citizens could earn rewards for reporting safety or health hazards, for example. San Antonio also is asking developers to create an app with incentives for users, such as the ability to earn badges or points.11

Managing Data

The call center, the web, the app and more … every component of non-emergency customer service continually generates tremendous volumes of information, much of it gathered, organized and funneled to managers by a CRM platform. We are truly in 311’s era of “Big Data.”

For a city’s data scientists, the potential for gaining insights about almost everything involved in governing a metropolis seems limitless. By sifting through this information, cities can see where infrastructure is deteriorating and begin to develop strategies to turn things around. Police can monitor hot spots of graffiti and vandalism and adjust resources as necessary.

For the City of El Paso, DATAMARK provides an information dashboard regularly to department managers, allowing them to monitor the “health” and effectiveness of 311 call center services. Data-management software platforms can present information in all types of useful visual format: Bubble charts, for example, can illustrate the types of calls and service requests emerging from each neighborhood.

In Grand Rapids, staff for civic organization Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) use GPS-enabled handheld devices to collect 311 data while working in the city’s neighborhoods.

“This also allows us to take an analytical approach to understanding simple trends – such as instances of graffiti – to other items that can influence infrastructure planning, such as bicycles being inappropriately locked to street trees,” said DGRI Director Kris Larson. “These observations, aggregated over time, can help us learn where to deploy more bicycle racks to meet the need of our bicycling citizens.”12

When it comes to Big Data, cities are challenged by a lack of resources—time, people and computing power—to take full advantage of this wealth of information. Some cities are solving this problem by making data accessible to citizens. This “open-government” approach to data is delivering many benefits. Chicago and Palo Alto, Calif. have “open 311” programs that share service-request data with its citizens. Residents can log on to find out if a problem such as graffiti or a pothole has been reported and track the progress of the cleanup or fix. Making this information available has helped significantly reduce the number of redundant service requests to 311.13

In 2017, Grand Rapids plans to make available online tools that will allow citizens to search and analyze 311 data. By freeing up the information to the public, the city will potentially have thousands of “citizen data analysts” working to uncover insights to improve services. 14

Balancing Service and Costs

Twenty years after its inception, 311 is no longer a simply a hotline serviced by call center staff. Instead, 311 should be thought of as a brand: The nexus of facilities, equipment, hardware, software, Big Data, and people who make it work for citizens every day.

The benefits are many. But for cities that account for every taxpayer dollar, they come at a cost. Let’s look at some real-world examples:

  • In the mid-size city of Chattanooga, the annual salary and benefits for one 311 call center agent is $47,000.
  • A subscription to a popular CRM platform for a mid-size city costs about $27,000 a year. CRM subscription prices can go much higher, depending on the platform and the number of agents who use it.
  • In San Antonio, another mid-sized city, the going rate to produce a mobile app is approximately $40,000.
  • Grand Rapids estimates the cost to update its city website to allow for ease-of-use with smart devices and desktops--as well as citizen access to 311 data—will cost $625,000.
  • NYC311—the largest and most comprehensive 311 program in the country (and the brainchild of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) is estimated to cost more than $40 million annually.  

In 2011, the Pew Charitable Trusts surveyed 15 cities’ 311 programs and calculated an average cost of $3.40 per call.15 There is no doubt that cities are under pressure to manage 311 costs wisely while finding the right balance of 311 services to meet citizens’ needs.

As highlighted throughout this paper, 311 managers understand the high cost of “people-powered” service. Cost management strategies, then, focus on automating 311 service wherever possible. The mantra in these organizations continues to be “self-service, self-service, self-service.” If a large city like Los Angeles can eliminate 20 percent of the 1.5 million annual service requests it receives over the phone by steering those citizens to self-service, it could save more than $1 million dollars, based on Pew’s cost-per-call estimate.

The Outsourcing Option

To better manage program costs, some cities are outsourcing the operation and management of their 311 call centers. Turning over the function to an experienced contact center services provider—especially to one that has 311 experience—can help cities significantly reduce operating costs, in addition to delivering many other benefits.

By shifting the management and operation of the 311 contact center to a service provider, city managers keep their focus on core city business, such as the day-to-day delivery of services to citizens. Additionally, with the 311 contact center function in capable hands, city leaders can turn their attention to long-term strategies for growth and governance: They’ll have time to develop “big-picture” strategies with peace of mind knowing citizens are receiving quality service from contact center professionals.

A contact center services provider also can assume responsibility for the recruiting, hiring and training of agents. This relieves pressure on the city’s human resources department, which may have limited resources and experience in hiring for contact centers.

Outsourcing, but Keeping It Local

A common concern that arises when the word “outsourcing” is brought up by city government is that the 311 contact center could shift to another city, where labor and facility costs are cheaper. Citizens worry that their calls and emails will be handled by people who are not familiar with the city’s geography, neighborhoods, culture and other insights that come from living in a community for years.

But outsourcing doesn’t have to mean moving jobs to another community. In El Paso, Texas, where the city has outsourced its 311 contact center function to DATAMARK, contact center employees are recruited from the local community and work on-site within a city-owned facility in Downtown El Paso.

A Seamless Outsourcing Transition

In taking over management and operation of 311 contact center services, DATAMARK provided another benefit to the city by providing a smooth transition of service between itself and the prior contact services provider. During an outsourcing transition, city employees or employees of the prior service provider may be concerned that they will lose their jobs as new management takes over. This doesn’t have to be the case: An experienced service provider can “rebadge” existing staff and shift them to the provider’s payroll as part of a seamless outsourcing transition. A case study in this type of 311 contact center transition is available from DATAMARK at this link:

Gaining a Partner for Success

An experienced contact center outsourcing provider can offer benefits far beyond a transactional-cost contract. Today, business process outsourcing is a mature industry, and providers are no longer simply sources of low-cost labor: They serve as professional business consultants, capable of delivering continuous process improvement and innovation to clients.


Since the launch of the country’s first non-emergency hotline in Baltimore in 1996, 311 programs have been adopted by dozens of cities. The have grown to be much more than a phone number for a call center.

City managers now commonly refer to their non-emergency services as the “311 program,” or even simply just “311,” because it is universally understood that 311 is a brand. 311 represents the nexus of elements designed to provide outstanding service to city residents: the multichannel contact center, the web portal, the mobile app, and the underlying CRM that supports it.

Given the size of today’s 311 programs, managers are challenged to continually balance the effectiveness of multiple communication channels used by citizens for non-emergency services with limited resources.

Fortunately, 20 years into the existence of 311, technologies such as cloud computing and smart devices offer managers a wealth of opportunity to provide citizens with a wide choice of options for customer service.

As 311 programs grow, cities have opportunities to manage costs through innovative self-service options available through voice, web and mobile app channels. Additionally, outsourcing the management and operation of the 311 contact center and other elements of the 311 program offer cities opportunities to deliver outstanding service while spending taxpayers’ dollars wisely.

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