City of New York 311 Customer Service Center
United States

The Problem

Access to government services for New York City constituents was greatly enhanced by the introduction of the 311 customer service operation in 2003, with over 135 million calls received since inception. Starting with the economic crisis in late 2008, demand on the 311 system increased by 38% while budget pressures required a 25% reduction in staffing. In addition to call volume increasing the nature of customer inquiries expanded, resulting in an increase in call duration time of 30% for the same period. The call center method of service delivery quickly became an unsustainable model, with the volume and complexity of demand increasing while call-taker resources were reduced to achieve budget targets. As a result, the City’s primary means of serving its constituents was in peril. At a time when New York City residents and businesses needed greater access to government services, the primary means of access had become more difficult. Further, as New York City agencies and departments faced increased budget pressures their need for data to better understand the changing customer demand grew substantially. As the City adopted a “do more with less” approach, the 311 operation needed to quickly improve and expand delivery of service through alternate means and methods. It had to do this with minimal investment funding, an on-going daily demand for better, faster, and deeper service support, and maintain the quality standards associated with the 311 brand.

Solution and Key Benefits

 What is the initiative about? (the solution)
The solution was to create and expand self-service options for service delivery that leveraged lower-costs channels to expand distribution and simplify the substance of the information. It began with an examination of customer needs and 311 strengths. Through the use of business intelligence tools the evaluation of customer inquiry data and behavioral trends were mapped to 311’s ability to deliver. This analytic discipline propelled a three-pronged approach to solving the limited accessibility and costly demand problem.
The first path focused on “content”. In addition to the increased volume inquiry types had changed. From the early days of infrastructure requests, such as potholes and graffiti, and quality of life complaints (such as noise), a shift occurred directly related to the economic collapse. Inquiries for public assistance, housing and foreclosure information, employment opportunities, and basic food and shelter needs grew by over 20% annually. In response the 311 team realized the need to provide greater breadth of information and explanations available to the public which could not be conveyed easily through a phone call. Alternatives were needed to point the public to online sources that could provide greater depth as well as interactive tools such as application forms and eligibility calculators.

The second challenge was to transform government policy and procedures into “plain language standards”. Customers turned to the government for authority in answers, but needed simplicity and relevance in the explanations. The 311 content team revised 4,000 distinct pieces of content and converted that information to a level consumable and understandable online or via social media, minus the assistance of phone operators. A “Lean Language” initiative adopted plain language standards and used analytic data for decision-making to determine the best links and landing pages for public inquiries.

The third leg of the solution focused on delivery channels. To alleviate the limitations of the costly call center the 311 team devised and implemented multiple new channels for information distribution, using low-cost and no-cost methods to present information and enable self-service. Consumption of information through channels outside the call center increased significantly in 2011, with dramatic growth vs. prior years: a 14% increase in automated message contact resolution since 2009, allowing 4.2 million customers to self-serve; over 2 million visits to 311 Online, the web-based companion to the call center in less than 24 months since inception and a 90% increase in 2011; and the growth of a text-based channel for information distribution, introduced in 2011 and on target to serve over 100,000 customers in less than 8 months. Providing information and links via social media further supported the shift with @311NYC on Twitter hosting over 25,000 followers; over 16,000 iPhone apps downloaded; and the entire 311 content catalogue available to the public as “Open Data”. The success is evident as “total talktime” the primary measure of demand in the call center, decreased by over 40,000 hours annually, a reduction of 7% against an objective of 3%.

Actors and Stakeholders

 Who proposed the solution, who implemented it and who were the stakeholders?
The solution that stemmed an unsustainable tide and established a platform for continued growth was achieved through the input, feedback and contributions of numerous groups and dedicated individuals. The 311 system is directly supported by an organization primarily focused on service delivery through the phone channel. In response to the challenges faced and the limited resources to develop and implement solutions it was clear contributions would be needed from both direct resources, civil servants in the 311 organization, and a variety of partners. To aid in the evaluation and strategic approach 311 leveraged private sector companies for direct guidance based on their familiarity with industry trends and technology alternatives. To better understand customer needs and interests New York City Community Boards and elected officials were tapped to share the voice of the customer. These government bodies were also critical in shaping the associated transparency initiatives they needed to perform their roles as local ombudsman, as well as to ensure data transparency standards were met. 311 had previously worked with non-profit organizations to understand the referral processes associated with service-providers, information that was very useful when evaluating appropriate landing points and url links for webpages as part of the 311 Online initiative. The broader community of New York City government agencies and in particular the Mayor’s Office of Operations Customer Service Group had significant impact in shaping options and providing the support needed on technology projects and policy decisions.

The most significant contributions however, came from both sides of the customer experience “front line”. New York City customers and 311 call center representatives were instrumental in the development of strategy, the identification of solutions, and the refinement of offerings. Customer feedback was critical to the design of the solution. Through robust analytic data on customer behavior and requests gathered over the past 8 years the empirical element of customer demand was available. The qualitative element was more challenging and required close examination of customer interactions. Through very hands-on methods, such as monitoring and evaluating calls and performing usability studies on the website, customer actions and needs became more evident. Previous customer satisfaction surveys were incorporated into the decision-making. And constant assessments of thousands of customer complaints and compliments were included in the processes. The front line that interacts with customers daily was tapped to assist in better knowing the customer needs as well as the shortcomings and deficiencies in service delivery. Through surveys, team meetings, and focus groups the call center personnel shared their treasure trove of customer needs and interests. A 311 call center representative speaks to over 20,000 customers a year, providing a rich and valuable source for pulse-of-the-public information.

(a) Strategies

 Describe how and when the initiative was implemented by answering these questions
 a.      What were the strategies used to implement the initiative? In no more than 500 words, provide a summary of the main objectives and strategies of the initiative, how they were established and by whom.
The realization of an unsustainable operating model of increased demand with decreased supply drove the need for the development of a multi-channel, self-service strategy for service delivery. The 311 senior leadership team had primary responsibility for the design and creation of the strategy, the approach, and the prioritization of resources. The strategy was to transform 311 from a one-to-one customer experience to a one-to-many experience.

The call center operation embodied the one-to-one scenario. One customer spoke to one representative, usually about one topic and received an answer. The representative was empowered and armed with robust content, and the customer was satisfied their inquiry was answered. But there was no cross-pollination or education associated with that transaction. The 311 content was doled out in a one at a time approach that while satisfying, was not collaborative or expansive.

The financial situation helped force the realization a one-to-many approach was not only more beneficial, but absolutely necessary. Unlocking the 311 content and making it available through a myriad of alternate channels would not only reduce pressure and demand on the call center, but also allow consumption of information in far greater numbers, and enable the education and sharing of answers, options, and ultimately discourse.

The strategy was direct: take the best that 311 have to offer and make it available anyway and every way possible. The intended goal was twofold: increase the public’s access to the information and services they need, while lowering operating costs. The strategy was established through multiple discussions and debates among the senior staff at 311, partners at City agencies, and contributions from private sector. Principle-based objectives and empirical decision-making were two critical elements of strategy development. The core group working on the strategy established basic principles that captured the desired “end state” of the initiative, and then made sure each step, each element, and each effort were aligned with those principles. Inputs were quantified and validated; guesses, hunches; and theories were entertained but required supporting data in order to move forward. The empirical approach helped separate the hopeful, “blue-sky” scenarios from achievable and practical approaches.

The strategy was ultimately finalized by the 311 Executive Director and reviewed with the City’s executive leadership including the Deputy Mayor and Mayor to ensure alignment and backing.

(b) Implementation

 b.      What were the key development and implementation steps and the chronology? No more than 500 words
Critical decision was to establish a centerpiece for the strategy that supported and enabled all other self-serve channels. Therefore the most critical step was the creation and deployment of “311 Online” the web-based companion piece to the 311 call center. By having a strong online presence that provide information and services directly, but could also be leveraged by other channels such as Twitter and Text-messaging, the reach of self-service expanded greatly. The City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) lead the effort to build the online centerpiece. Once established, 311 and DoITT looked to add companion applications and tools. These included a Service Request Map that allows the public to observe and review open and closed requests, from potholes to noise complaints, by street or intersection, introduced in February, 2011. DoITT furthered the transparency goals of the initiative by providing the technical support to launch a Service Request Data option in October, 2011, providing even more detail than the map in an exportable format for users to consume as they chose.

(c) Overcoming Obstacles

 c.      What were the main obstacles encountered? How were they overcome? No more than 500 words
Given the economic situation in the City during this period financial funding was an understandable barrier. The opportunity to request and receive capital funds was available but limited, and often required scaling back design or scope to meet funding levels. The second main obstacle was resource time. Having talented and dedicated resources on the 311 team and the support organizations was critical to success, but difficult to apply. The City’s operating model of “do more with less” left little room for resources to work outside their primary functional areas. As a result, subject matter experts and talented and creative resources were not readily available or not accessible during critical periods.

Overcoming these barriers required a continued focus on the strategy and benefits, and conscious decision-making to move resources and funds from a traditional to new service delivery model. It required discipline to make decisions and further discipline to stay the course. Believing in the strategy and approach was a challenge, staying with it before tangible benefits became apparent was even more difficult. The managerial basics of constant, consistent, and clear communication were a means of overcoming obstacles. From introducing the strategy and approach at Town Hall meetings to establishing reporting and measurement criteria to gauge progress and success were all contributing factors to overcoming the challenges.

(d) Use of Resources

 d.      What resources were used for the initiative and what were its key benefits? In no more than 500 words, specify what were the financial, technical and human resources’ costs associated with this initiative. Describe how resources were mobilized
The initiative was born out of the necessity to reduce spending across city government in response to the economic collapse in 2008-2009. As such, financial resources were limited in availability and application. The core element to the 311 initiative was the development and deployment of 311 Online, the centerpiece of the self-service option. Designed and built by internal city agency resources and a contracted vendor, it was achieved through a capital investment of less than $10 million. The remaining components of the self-service strategy required minimal capital investment and leveraged existing technology and city agency resources, as well as no-cost social media channels or low variable rate cost channels to expand the reach of 311 service delivery.

Given the lack of available financial support the bulk of the effort relied on human resources. To establish multiple new channels while re-working existing processes required the re-distribution of resources and personal commitment from the major stakeholders. The first step in the process was to commit to the strategy of 311 as a “multi-access, multi-channel source for information, services, and assistance”. This was a departure from the original mission, centered solely on the call center, and challenged the operations structure, personnel skills and abilities, and organizational culture. The senior staff at 311 challenged conventions and diligently addressed resource-allocation, particularly how to re-commit resources from their existing work to new projects, without suffering degradation in the existing services. By challenging individuals, setting the direction and setting the example, and tackling “change” these shifts were realized. Resources were re-positioned to work on lean language, IVR messaging, and Twitter responses, rather than call center tasks. The Quality Assurance department shifted its mode of operation, initially to ensure performance did not suffer during these shifts, and subsequently to expand their ability to evaluate performance of channels outside the call center.

Another element of resource impact was also a major factor. Research and analysis, performed by employees on their own time, was a key element for decision-making and implementation. While not required, and not compensated, employees took ownership in response to this business challenge and their desire to increase service to the public. As such, many used their personal time and energy to research industry trends, understand best practices, and perform “mystery shopper” experiments on private and public sector websites and social media outlets. This knowledge-gain was beneficial in design as well as operations, ranging from the look-and-feel of 311 Online to the process for responding to customers via Twitter.

Sustainability and Transferability

  Is the initiative sustainable and transferable?
The 311 self-service model exceeded objectives in 2011 and is ahead of schedule in terms of reach and acceptance levels. The major internal cultural shift – that customers could consume, understand, and use government information without benefit of a call center representative – has cleared initial hurdles and is now the new culture of the organization. With public acceptance and organization support the self-service initiative is certainly sustainable. Pivoting service-delivery from the highest cost to lower cost channels means financial sustainability is built in to the solution. The transferrable aspects are next and all indications are they will succeed. The methodology used by 311 to shift from a one-to-one to a one-to-many model has now been applied to customer operations in other City agencies, as well as other U.S. Cities 311 operations. While not yet of the size and scale of NYC311 other US cities are adopting alternate channels ranging from Text to Open Data as a means of providing enhanced service delivery at lower costs.

Lessons Learned

 What are the impact of your initiative and the lessons learned?
The primary impact has been the ability to improve service delivery, in terms of reach and accessibility, while decreasing operating expenses by over $7 million annually, a 14% reduction. The exercise and lessons learned continue every day but the path taken and approach followed offered two unexpected and valuable lessons: open the doors to the public and invite them in; and never underestimate the power of a committed and dedicated workforce.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   City of New York 311 Customer Service Center
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Joseph Morrisroe
Title:   Executive Director  
Telephone/ Fax:   212-504-4626
Institution's / Project's Website:
Address:   59 Maiden Lane
Postal Code:   10038
City:   New York
State/Province:   NY
Country:   United States

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