Abolishing service blues

Cities move for slicker access with 311

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.

Initially it’s not going to be a transformational business change, she adds. IP could benefit workflow processes in the 311 call centre, but the city’s existing applications already do that.

As well, there’s the risk of negatively impacting business continuity. For example, the call centre has a GIS mapping system in SAP. “Integrating this with VoIP isn’t something we’ve looked at, because of the highly available nature of the call centre.”

Dial this number first

Toronto’s proposed 311 call centre would be the logical group to initiate VoIP because of the quick return on investment gained by the sheer volume of calls and operational efficiencies, notes Colleen Bell, 311 project lead.

For example, VoIP allows call centre agents to do their jobs remotely. In the event of a storm or another emergency where agents can’t get to work, they could log into the system and still answer citizen inquiries from home.

“All 311 operations in the U.S. have a really important role to play in an emergency situation,” says Bell. “It makes a big difference in offloading non-emergency calls from 911.”

The City of Vancouver has identified a number of advantages in moving to VoIP and in November 2006 submitted to Council its report from a study on 311 VoIP services.

The report cites improved customer service through consolidation of call-handling; business continuity from easier phone relocation; and operational efficiencies like network management; presenting e-mail, fax and voice messages through a single interface (unified messaging); and easier generation of call statistics.

Vancouver’s director of IT, Roger Fast, has been appointed program director of a new business unit called Access Vancouver , to oversee the implementation of VoIP, a consolidated 311 call centre and an electronic records and documents management system.

VoIP project manager Peter Underwood says the city simply cannot afford to be on the bleeding edge of technology, but VoIP has proven itself to be strong and stable. “Our responsibility is to mitigate the risks,” he says.

Underwood expects the first two phases of the VoIP implementation will target the 311 call centre and the Vancouver Police Department, which is on “a fairly expensive” hosted Centrex system.

Vancouver currently buys Centrex services from both Bell and Telus Corp. for many of its internal clients like parks boards, libraries and other community services.

“So while the city will be getting increased functionality and new features, the technology’s strong net present value is equally important,” says Fast.
“And if we’re going to create a new call centre, then we should provision it with VoIP capability so that we don’t have to retrofit it later on.”

Taking phone ownership

While Vancouver can cut costs by moving departments off a hosted telecom system, the City of Calgary – the first in Canada to offer 311 – owns all its fibre-optic cables and other telephone equipment, such as PBX switch and branch exchanges.

“We’ve been running our own phone environment for so long we have it down to a science,” says Doug Hodgson, IT manager for innovation and architecture.

“We do our billing and management like adds, moves and changes, with a very small number of people, even to the envy of our service provider, Telus.”

Nearby Edmonton has deployed VoIP, but the city was renting a lot of Centrex lines, so it made sense for them to push for that, says Hodgson.
“It’s never been a big bang for us to go out and get that traffic off the rented copper and put it on our own network.”

Things like telework, unplanned peak relief, business continuity and disaster planning come to mind as some of VoIP’s potential merits, but the city has yet to fully explore the technology, adds Randy Vanee, 311 program manager.

Vendors claim IP makes computer-telephony integration much easier and more cost-effective, where a voice call might launch an application function.

“There were ways to tie pieces of technology together in the past, but with the advent of SIP ( Session Initiation Protocol ) and VoIP it’s become a lot easier,” says Larry Brown, a product manager for Telus.

“The technology products you’d go out and buy would have this sort of thing embedded in them already.”

Darren Hamilton, a partner business manager for HP ProCurve Networking, says it’s the applications capable around VoIP that are among the key drivers for an IP network.

“The ability to properly service 311 is access to information – timely, accessible information that’s available to the person servicing those calls,” he says. “The more you can have on a single network, the easier it is to manage and to scale.”

But for Calgary there just hasn’t been a compelling reason to pursue VoIP. Business process enhancements like workflow tracking and the integration of citizen relationship management software with the call centre have yet to present any challenges, says Hodgson.

“Everything you can do with VoIP, we can do within our existing infrastructure.” The city uses Nortel’s Call Pilot application.

“We’re coming out of this knowing how many calls we’re getting each year, including the recreation centres and swimming pools that weren’t as sophisticated in counting or managing calls,” says Terry Pearce, manager of citizen services.

Calgary’s swimming pools can now get back to managing the swimming pool, giving lessons and maintaining the facility, instead of giving out schedules and information on how much it costs to swim, he adds.

Transfer to central

Windsor 311 went live in August 2005, making it the third Canadian municipality and first in Ontario to do so. A month later, the city’s IT department relocated and used the opportunity to upgrade to VoIP.

Parts of City Hall undergoing renovation and the city’s legal department, also on new premises, have switched to VoIP and a new long-term care facility opening later this year will also be VoIP-enabled. “As we move to new sites, VoIP is our first choice,” says Harry Turnbull, the city’s director of IT.

Turnbull says he’s prepared to consider VoIP for 311 but, like Calgary, Windsor’s call centre is coping fine without it.

“Like any other application, the marketing hype always tells you how wonderful things are, but you really do have to look up your business needs and determine what’s justifiable,” he says.

The city operates on a hybrid Nortel PBX-VoIP telephone system. Applications built into the Nortel switch provide all the call centre statistics and the call centre gains enhanced functionality from a Motorola customer service system, says Turnbull.

With Nortel’s call tracking software, the city knows for example that it received 10,201 non-emergency calls during December, 83 per cent of which were requests for information and 17 per cent requests for service; average call wait-time was 16 seconds and average duration just over two minutes.

When a request for information comes in, customer service representatives use the Motorola CSR software to look up answers to questions in a knowledge base and link this information directly to the city’s Web site.

For service requests where someone has to be dispatched to fill potholes, trim trees or remove snow, the application links to the city’s work order systems and can track their progress.

Turnbull suggests that while VoIP may make sense for a call centre, a stronger business case is needed than application integration. “We know there would be some call efficiencies for the service representatives; it’s a question of whether you can use that to justify the increase in costs.”

Managing process change

A city doesn’t need VoIP to be a cutting-edge innovator; what it needs is effective processes and measurements for delivering citizen services, asserts Toronto executive Davies.

“The emphasis isn’t on whiz-bang technology because there’s just so much process change involved that we want to take a very steady approach.

“We want to be state-of the-art, but I don’t think we need to be state-of the-art technologically, we want to be state-of the-art from a process perspective.”

A performance management system can also help to fundamentally change the culture of an organization, adds Bell. “It drives a very intense results-oriented culture, and that’s probably the biggest transformation that happens with every 311 implementation.”

Looking at a technology project as a business project means you can get away from just looking at the actual installation, she explains. “You look at whether your processes match, how the new system works, is the culture in place that will support appropriate use of the system, and do you have communication protocols in place? It’s process transformation.”

With new technology comes change management, and this is about building partnerships with your staff, suggests Nimet Karim, a marketing executive with Telus. Organizations need to work on business process flows, mapping out for the front-line service staff all the different steps and questions that need to be asked for a particular citizen query, she says.

“It means working with internal staff to ensure consistent service delivery. They’re part of the process of defining what service delivery means, building that customer-centric service culture, focusing on what customer relationship management means and how it’s going to provide more value.”

Related content:

Better service worth the cost, Mississauga says

Modern architectures show designs on citizens

Ottawa wants more from connectivity

311: More than you think

VoIP performance: more than a bandwidth issue

These VoIP players know the score

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