A 311 Culture Shock

Charlotte simplifies government information with a nonemergency call center, but getting the service running is another story.

Saskia Thompson (left), Executive Assistant to the city manager, and Susan Johnson, Business Support Services Director for Charlotte

If you work in city, county or state government, your citizens often need nonemergency help. Any of these sound familiar?

  • Early on a Tuesday morning, a resident wants to find out why his trash hadn’t been collected on Monday as usual.
  • A homeowner is trying to figure out how much her property tax increase will be this year and when the payment is due.
  • A commuter wants to know when the scheduled road construction will begin along his route to work.

In the past, Charlotte, N.C., residents would have to navigate through more than 400 listings in the local government blue pages in the telephone book to find the correct department to call for answers to such questions. But today, those answers are just a three-digit dial away.

94 Full-time employees who work at Charlotte’s 311 center.

Charlotte’s 311 system provides information for all nonemergency government services through a single dial-in telephone number. Callers ask their questions of the 311 call center agents who answer them directly if they can, route callers to other departments if necessary, or issue service requests. The city launched the system in July 2005 and today fields more than 1.6 million calls each year. Charlotte city and county constituents love it, but in the early days of planning and development, organizational barriers arose that challenged the project.

Charlotte has adhered to a vertically integrated “run-the-business” philosophy for more than a decade. That philosophy created a lean, efficient government. Every department and suborganization must manage its workload, staff and budget as efficiently as it can, including technology. So in 2002, when department leaders learned about the 311 joint project — which would consolidate dozens of department call centers into one — they knew it would significantly affect their technology, proprietary data, budgets and staffing.

What followed was a calculated series of steps that included winning executive buy-in, integrating technology, organizing staff members, and dealing with the challenges of a fast-growing service against not-so-fast-growing staffs and budgets. The struggle is not over, but Charlotte appears to be winning.

Building the Case

The 311 team began work on a business case in 2002 with a quick scan of all of the departments that field a high volume of telephone calls. What the review found was that 22 departments throughout the city and county had intense call volumes and devoted significant resources to responding to information requests. Consolidation of these functions was a logical solution.

Early on, we realized that our existing telephone system could not support a 311 call center. In 2003, we bought an Avaya phone switch with Voice over Internet Protocol technology and implemented this in three existing call centers.

The decision to put telephone system technology ahead of the 311 system launch worked well because the 311 team accumulated more than a year’s worth of definitive call data from the switch. The data helped forecast call volumes and determine the staff and schedules needed to answer calls.

With this solid data and the VoIP technology, it was time to begin building the 311 system.

The original implementation budget was $4.1 million. It had to cover the VoIP phone system, the build-out of a leased space and upgrades to a homegrown knowledge-based tool called Emerald. The Emerald system originally supported the City/County Customer Service and Information System, which pre-dated the 311 effort. Charlotte offices are using it as a customer service application until it can be replaced with a full-scale customer relationship management (CRM) application.

The budget also had to cover all the servers and desktop systems at the call center, system redundancy and new networking lines into the building.

Other than the new telephone system there was little streamlining of the technology applications used by departments served by 311 to schedule work and store data required to answer customer calls.

As a result, customer service representatives at 311 must access as many as 13 applications to answer calls, in addition to downloading information from the Internet and e-mail. The applications include systems as complex and data-sensitive as a computer-aided dispatch system that supports the Police Department, a utility billing system and the state tax mainframe. The applications used by 311 run on the separate and distinct networks of the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the state of North Carolina. This creates a complex web of firewalls and access privileges to manage.

The future plans call for improving these interfaces and bolstering security.

Doubling Up

Charlotte’s 311 center serves both a city and a county, which are composed of 13 large city departments and more than 20 county units.

Winning Buy-in

City leaders who want to spearhead a 311 system must have absolute support from the highest level to break through cultural barriers.

In Charlotte, it was necessary to convince department leaders that the “run-the-business” philosophy was not contrary to having a centralized customer service intake center. The center has potential to provide efficiencies through resource sharing. However, the creation of the 311 service exposed the organizational problems associated with a decentralized approach to technology planning and investment. The more data a 311 agent can access through a shared technology infrastructure, the greater the efficiency gains.

Immediately after the 311 center opened, Charlotte began re-evaluating its organizational approach to technology decision-making. We did this by creating teams where collaboration around common business practices and their supporting technology could occur. These teams have the task of setting the policy goals for technology enterprisewide, making recommendations for budget allocations, ensuring collaboration among departments, and providing overall direction for good technology planning and decision-making.

The teams also make sure that each department has the right balance of shared resources and business-specific technologies, and that they get every efficiency out of standardizing data and sharing information.

The transition into this environment is complex, and a lot of effort has focused on organizational staffing, not just technology.

While call volumes rose 25 percent between 2005 and 2007, the size of the staff at CharMeck 311 has remained constant. Turnover is high as a result of running a 24 x 7 call center in an area where there is intense competition for call takers. Training is time- consuming and costly because of the variety of services provided by the city and the county; the need to train agents on many separate applications further complicates the center’s staff planning. The 311 center must live through this shortfall until the addition of new CRM technology and other back office applications are complete, which should significantly reduce the number of desktop applications that it supports.

In the end, Charlotte will keep to its run-the-business style: doing more without adding staff and finding ways to enhance 311 services.

On the Horizon

Charlotte, N.C., has two large information technology projects in early development that it hopes will ultimately improve the services provided by its 311 call center.

The first is a new work order and asset management (WAM) system. There are more than 30 of these systems in the city now. Only two have components shared by more than one department. By consolidating its WAM systems, Charlotte will be able to provide a single lens to manage assets, schedule service or maintenance, check the status of requests and better plan for future capital needs. Given the scope of the project, the changes and consolidation will occur over several years.

The city and county are also developing requirements for a new comprehensive customer relationship management system. CRM will provide the platform to integrate departmental systems into a single environment, replacing Emerald as the primary knowledge tool and system for capturing citizen-driven requests for service. Emerald got us over the hill, but it’s not enough to get Charlotte into the future.

These projects will require enormous investments and a great deal of business process redesign to implement. In an environment where elected leaders are challenged to build new roads and staff the Police Department, spending public dollars on technology will not happen without a solid business case.

Though the plan doesn’t call for buying these systems in the upcoming fiscal year, the awareness program is already under way. The city’s senior managers want to familiarize city council members with these projects so that they understand how WAM and CRM will affect missions and how they can help Charlotte deliver services that best meet the needs of its ever-growing population.

Jul 03 2007