Earlier this month, Philip Ashlock of OpenPlans published a nice Open311 “wish list” for the new year.
There is a lot of exciting stuff on this list, and Phil’s thoughts are sure to be the basis for lots of innovative and interesting work in 2012.
When people think about the “Open311 standard” they typically think of the GeoReport V2 specification. This is the spec that details the interface for submitting non-emergency service requests to municipalities.
Reporting potholes, graffiti, garbage on the streets, etc. is often what people envision when they think of municipal 311 service. But this is only part (actually, a relatively small part) of the types of contacts that 311 centers receive.
For most 311 centers, the majority of contacts involve not the reporting of an incident, but an inquiry – a question about government services or a request for information.
Information, not service
Consider the 311 service center in Philadelphia. In early 2010, the Pew Charitable Trust conducted an in depth review of the first year of operation of Philly311. Looking at the makeup of calls to the 311 service center shows that the overwhelming majority were calls for information, not to request a service.
On average in 2009, seven in ten callers to Phillly311 were looking for basic or general information. On average, 19 percent
needed to be transferred to another department or line, a rate that Philly311 likes to keep low. Another 9 percent were asking
for a service, requiring an agent to submit a formal request to another city department.
Over seventy percent of calls on average to the Philly311 center were to ask a question, not to report an issue.
Assuming that this experience is similar to 311 operations in other municipalities, the biggest benefits of automation and innovation derived from a 311 API lie in addressing requests for information, not submitting service requests.
To this point, there is a nascent standard for querying data about government services and information – the 311 Inquiry API.
This developing standard was put forward by officials in New York City, who developed the first iteration of the specification. There is a new version currently in draft form.
Why it matters
The further development of a 311 Inquiry API and innovation built around it will be hugely important for municipalities running 311 contact centers, and even some that don’t.
There is a very real, mesurable cost associated with calls to 311 contact centers. The Pew report mentioned above reviewed the budget allocations and call volumes of 15 large U.S. cities that run 311 centers. It estimates the average cost per call to 311 centers over these 15 cities at $3.39 per call.
If self-service applications and utilities can be built on top of a 311 Inquiry API then it may be possible to drive down the volume of telephone calls to 311 contact centers. But even without a huge reduction in the number of calls, new self-service apps built on a 311 Inquiry API can lead to a better allocation of existing municipal resources.
There are inevitably people that will need to call a 311 center for information that are not able to self serve – either because of a lack of access to web or mobile apps for self service, or because of some other barrier (e.g., language).
These individuals are most appropriately handled by contact center agents, while other individuals – those with access to the web or mobile apps – are more appropriate for self service. This will ensure that the most expensive and valuable resources in a 311 contact center – i.e., agents – are allocated to those citizens who most need more intensive, hands-on help.
Contact center managers certainly don’t want agents answering inquiries from people who are able to self serve, or who are more easily able to obtain needed information from another source. This ties up an expensive, finite resource within a contact center with an individual who has other options in how they get their information.
I applaud the good folks at OpenPlans for all of the hard work they have done, and are doing, to encourage innovation in 311 services. If you havent read Phil’s Open311 wish list I highly recommend it.
On my own personal 311 wish list for 2012 is one thing – the further development and use of a 311 Inquiry API.
Fingers crossed that we’ll see more on this front in the next 12 months.
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