311: More than you think

Canadian municipalities adopting 311 services to provide citizens with non-emergency information have found that they’ll be setting a new standard for service.

But they’ve also found there won’t be change without growing pains.

The message surfaced at a session at the Lac Carling Congress in May, led by Noreen Rude, project and business manager in Customer Service and Communications with the City of Calgary, and Colleen Bell, 311 corporate lead/manager, Corporate Client Services Initiative with the City of Toronto.

Rude and Bell argued that 311 could eventually afford seamless access to information services for all three levels of government.

Not everyone agreed, however. Roy Wiseman, IT Director with the Region of Peel noted for example that, beyond inter-jurisdictional concerns, regions with two-tier municipal government structures have their own set of 311 implementation issues.

Wiseman wondered whether 311 would be provided by the region or by the various local municipalities, including the City of Mississauga and the City of Brampton. A decision had to be reached between the two tiers, he said.

“The residents are going to call 311, and not know or care who answers. But they will expect to be able to deal with all municipal services regardless of what level they are provided at.”

In light of this, Wiseman said, Peel is not moving forward with 311 implementation, or even a plan, before determining which level of government is best position to provide the services.

“We have eight different call centres today,” Wiseman said. “We had a project underway before 311 applications were ever submitted by Calgary, Toronto and others, that stated eight call centres is not good customer service, so we would consolidate those eight into a single customer contact centre.”

Wiseman said that centre would deal with all channels of communication, not just phone calls, but would also be integrated to support web-based applications and over-the-counter service.

Daya Pillay, manager of e-commerce and web services in Halifax, said the city is still identifying 311 deliverables.

“We need to know the expectation of when an event can be resolved and the citizen has to have an expectation of when they can have a reply,” Pillay said. “We have presently identified those criteria for about 60 services.”

311 is everything that is not 911, according to Pillay.

“Unfortunately today in Halifax we haven’t gone through all the sections that deliver service in order to have those service level agreements to articulate to the public,” he said. “We are also building a whole centre that will deliver that service, which will house 311 and 911 in the same state-of-the-art complex.”

In the end, according to Rude, it is the information provided by citizens that will improve service delivery.

“People truly began to realize that 311 is about service transformation,” Bell added. “When 311 municipalities start moving forward, we are going to blow the doors off the place in terms of service excellence.”

Bell noted that when the City of Chicago implemented a 311 model, it was intended to offload non-emergency calls from 911.

“When (Chicago) began to implement 311, the feedback they got from their citizens is that they wanted more accountability and transparency,” Bell said. “(Chicago residents) wanted to know what the service standard was, how long it was going to take to fill a pothole, and who was accountable if it didn’t get filled in the timeframe the City had identified.”

Bell argued that 311 becomes a catalyst for service transformation within an organization whether that is what is intended or not.

“Any municipality that has implemented 311 has found that it has become a service standard of excellence. If you are a 311 municipality, it represents a whole different level of service delivery from a quality point of view.”

311 does not deliver services in a piecemeal fashion – it cuts across divisions or departments, according to Bell.

“From a public standpoint, you are accountable from the second the citizen attempts to contact the organization, to when the service is actually delivered,” Bell said. “It is a fundamental change and very exciting.”

“If you can improve service delivery at the level that impacts citizens the most, I think it raises the standard,” Rude said. “Municipal governments and councils are getting on this bandwagon.”

The City of Calgary launched Canada’s first 311 municipal phone service on May 18.

Brian Eaton (beaton@itworldcanada.com) is senior writer with CIO Government Review.