Unified Communication Streamlines Government

Advanced features improve public service without bigger staffs and budgets.

Although complete unification of voice and data traffic is still more goal than reality, the initial steps are yielding some significant benefits for city and county jurisdictions around the country.

Altamonte Springs, Fla., and Marin and Napa counties in California are using subsets of the unified communications spectrum to boost responsiveness and service to their communities without a proportionate increase in staffing or cost. In addition to serving constituents better, these jurisdictions collectively use UC to facilitate teamwork, enhance information sharing, reduce travel and emissions, enable remote access and improve public safety.

As such, UC represents a convergence watershed: The focus has shifted from network economies and IT staff convenience to helping end users work and communicate more efficiently. 

“UC makes it easier for constituents to reach the right people,” says Blair Pleasant, principal analyst at market research firm COMMfusion. Presence capabilities reveal the status of prospective call recipients, calls are routed accordingly, and more of them get through on the first try. Fewer calls are transferred or dropped, which means employees have fewer calls to return. This improves both citizen satisfaction and employee productivity.

Incremental Implementation

UC lends itself to incremental implementation and can be adapted to the technological, geographical and cultural contexts of individual organizations. And while it is generally regarded as an enhancement of VoIP, some UC technologies can be implemented on legacy voice systems. 

California’s Marin County still uses traditional voice technology from Avaya, but is easing its way toward VoIP migration by implementing media gateways that can operate in time division multiplexing (TDM) or VoIP mode.  In 2005, the county rolled out Avaya’s Modular Messaging application along with an interactive voice response (IVR) interface that uses Avaya’s Nuance speech-recognition technologies. 

IVR applications were not new to the county, but the old technology used hierarchical trees that were laborious to navigate. Now the auto-attendant simply asks callers to briefly describe what they want, and the Nuance-enabled system, which recognizes thousands of words and phrases, can automatically route calls to the appropriate individual or department.

“People like to be able to speak into an application,” says Barbara Layton, telecommunications manager for Marin County. “And while the speech recognition interface was created for constituents, employees are actually using it more than the community.”

Marin County employees like the hands-free capabilities in general. Caller ID information is linked to voice mail, and employees can simply say “return call” to prompt the system to dial the number automatically. Employees can also listen and respond verbally to e-mail (using an embedded .wav file), and place voice mail pertaining to certain topics in the appropriate Microsoft Outlook folder along with corresponding e-mail. Voice mail can also be listened to in Outlook if the computer is equipped with a voice card.

“So it’s very appealing to people who are computer-centric, and also to people who have very verbal jobs and aren’t crazy about futzing around with computers,” says Layton. “Personally, I love using this with my PDA. I check my e-mail periodically while sitting in a meeting and use stored text to tap out responses. And I can pop out of the meeting to go into speech access and leave a detailed .wav file message, which also gives a personal touch.”

Enabling the Virtual Workplace

Environmentally conscious Marin County is promoting teleworking where possible, and the Avaya UC solution has a “follow-me” feature that helps create a virtual workplace. The employee’s desk phone number can be made to ring on a cell phone or home phone, and calls placed by the employee while working on the road or at home will appear to be coming from the county office.

End-user training on the UC technology was simple and straightforward, involving brief in-person and intranet-based classes. On the IT staff side, Layton says, a close working relationship with the Exchange server administrators is very important, because the speech access server must be given super-user rights. “This relationship came in handy during the first daylight saving time change we had to deal with, because the speech access server talks back and forth with the Exchange server all day, and we had to apply patches in the midst of all this.”

The City of Altamonte Springs, Fla., is also using Avaya’s UC technology, but with an Avaya VoIP telephony system. Convergence of e-mail and voice mail is still on the city’s to-do list, but meanwhile, the data integration capabilities are boosting the productivity of employees who do most of their work in the field.

“We deployed BlackBerry smart phones that are tied into our help-desk system from BMC, and the people in the field are now getting work orders in real time,” reports Lawrence DiGioia, director of information services for the city. Avaya’s extension-to-cellular module provides single-number access; as requests come in from the public, information goes out immediately to field personnel, who can react on the spot by viewing documents, answering questions and redirecting work orders.

Office-based employees were a bit slower to see the benefits, but they now like the virtual-office forwarding capabilities and the pop-up displays that provide complete caller information and call history.

“UC is reducing human latency by giving us information in real time and providing direct access to the right people,” sums up DiGioia. But he cautions that UC implementation is likely to take longer than expected, no matter how careful the planning process. He recommends bringing representatives from each department into the planning process and incorporating their suggestions. DiGioia’s team also visited a nearby city which had already deployed the same solution and was able to benefit significantly from this neighbor’s experience.

Keep It Simple

Like Marin County, the Superior Court of California in Napa County was using UC with a traditional Toshiba telephony platform. There was web-based access to the court system, an IVR system with speech recognition and a key switch phone system that used a complicated tree structure to herd voice callers to the right place. However, the IVR interface was limited to specific purposes, and the telephone and voice-mail systems were supported by different vendors.

In 2005 the court started evaluating new phone systems — both traditional and IP-based — with the help of GreenIT Inc., an environmentally oriented consultancy in Sonoma, Calif. The court has no internal telecommunications staff, so the emphasis was on simplicity and ease of integration. Information technology manager Jeannette Vannoy and her staff evaluated solutions for about a year and settled on a VoIP system from ShoreTel. It included integrated voice mail and extensive UC capabilities while allowing for flexible integration with the existing voice interaction platform that provided IVR and interactive web applications.

The implementation of more widely used speech recognition has eliminated the complicated phone trees, making the interface much more user friendly and enabling the court to deploy it more broadly. Users can configure various UC capabilities from the intuitive Personal Call Manager interface and are finding screen pops that immediately populate themselves with caller information to be very useful.

“For example, when a juror calls, they enter their juror ID number, the call automatically gets routed to the right person, and the juror’s information pops up on the screen,” Vannoy says. 

Located in the Napa County seat, also called Napa, the court doesn’t have any mobile users and isn’t using UC for tele-arraignments. The jail is connected by a tunnel to the criminal courts building, so securing criminals as they are moved from their cells to the courtroom is not an issue. However, the court is looking at video solutions that could provide the public with remote self-help capabilities.

“The need for court services in Napa County is growing fast, and we are starting to provide some remote services in Calistoga, and looking at more in the cities of St. Helena and potentially American Canyon,” Vannoy says. Right now, a court employee goes to Calistoga once a week to meet with people instead of requiring that they come to the courthouse. Using video technology, the court hopes to arrange virtual meetings throughout the week. Video is also being looked at as a way to enhance security through increased surveillance.

May 27 2008