The History Behind 311

3-1-1 – A Familiar Ring

In communities across Canada and the United States, 3-1-1 is widely recognized as a whiz telephone number to access non-emergency municipal services – every citizen’s Service Center. Dialing this number allows residents in certain cities to connect quickly and effectively with important information and community services through a central, all-purpose phone number.

3-1-1 diverts routine inquiries and non-urgent community concerns from the emergency 9-1-1 number. The distinction is aptly described in a Los Angeles website:

“Burning building? Call 911.”

“Burning Question? Call 311.”

Where Did 3-1-1 Originate?

In October 1996, Baltimore launched a 3-1-1 service that connected callers to a call center integrated with their 9-1-1 service. The 3-1-1 calls were assigned a secondary priority, answered only when there were no 9-1-1 calls waiting. This extended the system in order to allow true emergency callers to be answered quickly, without delays or busy signals.

The largest 3-1-1 service in operation today is in New York City. Implemented in 2003 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it receives 50,000 calls daily, answered by over 200 service professionals at an estimated cost to date of $40 million. Among the thousands of communities across the US, there are only about two hundred with adequate resources to run a 3-1-1 public call center.

3-1-1 in Canada

In the beginning, 3-1-1 was used as part of actual phone numbers. It was also used as fictitious numbers by the Bell system, and more uniquely in a number of films including Mission Impossible, and TV series such as The Rockford Files and the Bionic Woman. These practices were discontinued with the advent of the dedicated 3-1-1 service.

Late 2004 the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) formally reserved the use of 3-1-1 for non-emergency municipal services throughout Canada. In May of the following year, 3-1-1 service was initiated in Calgary. Since then, 14 communities have followed suit at considerable cost.

3-1-1 Growing Pains

Having one number to call is helpful, but there are still wait times, the quality of service may vary and the system is expensive.

There has been tremendous growth in the 3-1-1 call centers both in usage and in the costs to operate them. However they are fraught with problems, especially staff turnover that can exceed 80% – the industry standard – and training costs that can reach $10,000 per employee. How much is too much?

For larger cities, it comes at a considerable cost: to start up – for example,.

Cities Start Up Cost Ongoing Cost
Toronto $ 13,000,000 $ 2,000,000
Mineapolis $ 6,300,000 $ 1,000,000
Ottawa $ 3,000,000 $ 6,000,000
Vancouver $ 12,300,000 $ 5,700,000
Baltimore – – $ 4,600,000

The Race Is On…

We have also witnessed a significant shift in the relationship between towns, cities and their population. Today the dominant taxpayer is younger, more demanding and extremely comfortable and conversant with the new technologies, having grown up with it since the PC was first introduced in 1982.

Canada, according to a recent study, has the highest personal Internet usage in the world. Canadians believe there are no barriers in accessing the information they want, and they want to know what is going on within their cities.

Citizens expect to have direct access to up-to-date information on a range of topics such as roads, facilities, city finances, taxation bills, parking tickets, licensing, and permits. Besides all the programs the city offers.

There is considerable pressure on Municipalities to “get with it” and deliver the goods… after all, the citizens are underwriting the costs to run their local governments.

Cities are also forced to compete with other communities in attracting new businesses and residents in order to increase their tax base. This allows them to meet the demands of high-level municipal services in the face of constantly rising costs: doing more with less.

Websites – The Holy Grail

When this pressure for “municipal transparency” began in the 90s the answer was to create a municipal website as a tool for citizens to search out information. However there was no one standard and websites varied greatly in terms of architecture, look and feel and most importantly ease of use.

They were the best of breed for the time, but were not built around customers’ needs nor understanding of how people explore a website or search a database.

Many of these websites have since become antiquated and are more of a problem than a solution. Their structure still mirrors a department-based organization.

This in many cases baffles citizens who experience “feature shock” – much confusion with too many features, poor introduction and no one area to which they are directed. Searching for and retrieving the desired information can be slow, tedious and painful.The larger cities can support in-house technical capabilities to develop and maintain their websites and have easy access to specialized firms within their metropolitan area.

The average Canadian city – with a population around 55,000 – often has to make do with less specialized local technical skills, and with tight budgets, their websites cannot keep up the pace.

Industry Leads The Way

The pressure of these new service delivery standards while at the same time holding the line on costs has been realized over the years in other industries.

The solution: make some radical changes by using the latest technology.

The Canadian banking industry’s face-to-face service and limited banking hours were not meeting their customer demands. The solution: ATM machines. They were low cost, and they significantly changed the customer experience while providing 24/7 access.

Retail gas stations were struggling with their expensive full service operations. The solution: fully automated self-serve gas stations.

To make travel bookings required calling to make reservations, or using the services of a travel agent. This was time consuming and incurred commission costs.
The solution: the internet to track the best price for travel and make the reservations without any direct personal contact.

The old way of doing business was based more upon the state of technology at the time, rather than inertia. Each of these industries among many others were able to maintain or improve their level of customer service and deliver it at less cost

Not Only The iGeneration

Today’s generation communicates electronically by e-mail, messengers, bulletin boards and social networking. With Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and so forth people’s expectations have been dramatically reshaped as to how they will access information.

Not to be outdone, Canadians 55 and over are emerging as the country’s biggest internet users according to a recent study. They also expect greater ease in accessing information from public sources.

The citizenry are no longer content to sit at home and have the information delivered to them. It is the era of “pervasive computing” – whether in coffee shops, bus stations, restaurants or anyplace else. People want their information here and now via their laptop, pad, or mobile device.

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