Abolishing service blues

Public service and information are hard to fathom from the Blue Pages. Blue Pages directories read like hieroglyphics, with none of the great storytelling. In the age of citizen empowerment, Blue Pages are too complex and too bureaucratic to empower anyone.

Municipalities know this, so instead they’re moving hundreds of government departments out of the telephone book and onto a single number. Cities across Canada are swiftly moving to abolish the bureaucracy in favour of a simple 311 dial-in for access to the full range of non-emergency services.

Following massive 311 call centre installations in Baltimore, Chicago and New York, Canuck mayors in Calgary, Gatineau, Ottawa and Windsor have built consolidated call centres and rolled out 311 hotlines in the name of easier, more efficient public service. No longer will citizens have to figure out which department to deal with – the city will now take care of that.

Research by IDC Canada Ltd. finds cities are pushing for further innovation and cost savings and striving for increased efficiencies to meet rising service expectations.

Municipalities want government-wide intelligence on how they are meeting service standards, explains senior analyst Alison Brooks, and they’re looking to information technology to improve call centre productivity.

“Canadian municipalities want to be able to measure and track user inquiry; they want to know where they’re spending the bulk of their time and effort; to make business sense of things and to streamline processes,” says Brooks.

The main driver for 311 is not cost savings but improved citizen access to municipal services, she adds.

According to the report, 44 per cent of the Canadian municipalities surveyed are currently using voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to achieve those efficiencies, and by next year that figure will rise to 64 per cent.

After improved access to services, performance management is one of the main reasons for upgrading to VoIP, says Brooks. “Municipalities have high expectations for metrics-related capabilities built into their systems,” she says.

“They want real-time information on calls in progress, calls waiting, how many calls have been closed and logged, and the ability to gather data as a result of those calls.”

Hold the line, please

But making the business case for VoIP isn’t so easy. Canadian cities, particularly those with large jurisdictions like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, are still sorting fuzzy hype from reality.

Each municipality has a unique set of circumstances, and finding the right business model is about as clear as finding the right government department in the Blue Pages. Only, there’s greater risk attached to return on investment.

The City of Toronto has issued an RFP for consulting assistance to help determine the feasibility and business case for implementing VoIP. The city’s contract with Bell Communications Inc. is up for renewal in 2009.

“We’re a conservative organization; we want to make sure that if we do this, we do it right and it’s going to work for all of our operations,” says John Davies, executive director of IT.

“We have to be conservative because the hype gets ahead of the technology a lot of the times. The theory’s great,” he says, “but when you get around to the practice, there’s a cost to this, and an issue there that I hadn’t thought about, and all of a sudden it becomes a lot more complicated.”

About a year-and-a-half ago, Halifax Regional Municipality decided to upgrade to VoIP as part of a massive expansion of its call centre.

“We were physically building a new location, going from a room to a building,” recalls Daya Pillay, manager of e-commerce and Web services. “We had plans for 311 in the future, and as part of that process we brought together 911 and non-emergency calls into the same location.”

One of the action items of this consolidation was to bring the region’s call centre technology in-house, says Pillay. “In order to get some of the technology to drive our statistics and our customer service orientation, we thought we’d be best served by hosting our own IP switch and getting all those features we desired.”

During the RFP process, a cost analysis was done and Halifax chose to go with VoIP. As part of its procurement practices, the municipality tends to lean towards the lowest bidder, explains Pillay. When the system went live, some critical decisions had to be made and the VoIP system was not ready.

“The project simply ceased to be.” In the end, the “solution” was not implemented. “Part of the reason for this was that the vendor wasn’t really experienced in VoIP technology.”

Halifax remains on a hosted telco system and is pushing on with its plans for a consolidated call centre, building the back-end processes to support 311.

“We’re using a single number, but we haven’t yet resolved all our services,” says Pillay. “We’re still working on the business processes so the call centre will be not just a director of people to different information services, but will offer a full range of services.”

A call to return

Janet Harris-Campbell, director of IT services for the City of Ottawa, notes that the approach to VoIP has evolved from two to three years ago. When the technology was still new, there was a great deal of hype around the possible features that VoIP applications might offer business, she says.

If an organization really looked at what a cost-recovery or a business-case approach might be, those features really wouldn’t bring the return on investment for making the change, asserts Harris-Campbell.

As Toronto begins to implement 311, Davies concedes VoIP will most likely play some role. He’s just not sure it will be immediate. “It makes sense,” he admits, but “right now the real business use for it is a fuzzy notion.”

“Some of those applications that come with VoIP will be convenient and add ease of use, but it’s been harder for us to quantify the hard dollar savings,” says Harris-Campbell.

“We need to sort the hype from a return on investment. We have to be responsible to tax-payers and show we’ve assessed the hard business value.”

For IP trunking alone, Ottawa estimates savings of $1 million per year at the end of four years, but beyond the convergence of data and voice, the city hopes to learn what more the technology can do to help business.

“Once we get a sense of what those benefits can be, we can work with the city business to see where there might be other savings and additional benefits – things like unified communications, presence features (telepresence) and conferencing,” says Harris-Campbell.

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