Houston 311 Transforms Citizens Into Service Agents

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Frank Carmody, assistant director for the City of Houston, discusses how self-service and mobile innovations have altered the way citizens and city officials crowdsource improvements and repairs.
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As the 10thfastest-growing city in the U.S., Houston, TX, sees its fair share of service requests every year. However, Houston 311 allows citizens to connect with city officials via phone or Web in an effort to report problems in their area. But, with thousands of inquiries to route and rectify, Houston 311 integrated self-service and mobile capabilities to alleviate call center strain and improve citizen engagement.

Through these emerging channels, Houston 311 empowers citizens to act as service agents, while the city's newfound focus on transparency enables citizens to track requests and complaints from inception to completion. Here, we speak with Frank Carmody, assistant director of operations, administration, and regulatory affairs for the City of Houston, to explore what drove Houston 311's technological growth and how said innovations have enhanced response times and citizen satisfaction:

1to Media: What service does Houston 311 provide and how long has it been in operation? With numerous contact channels available, how does Houston 311 ensure that service remains consistent?

Frank Carmody: Houston 311 started in 2001. Houston 311 handles more than 2.1 million citizen contacts per year with 55 full-time customer service agents and 20 part-time agents via email, Web, and smartphone app. In addition to agents entering service requests, customers can use the self-serve features on the Web or app to find answers to questions about Houston city government or to request service. Houston can access 270 different types of service requests and 2,600 Frequently Asked Questions on everything from traffic fines and sewer concerns to pothole problems and neighborhood complaints.

In 2011, the city had extensive layoffs, including one-third of its call center staff. (Formerly, Houston 311 had 81 full-time call center agents). Since then, Houston 311 has applied "force multipliers," such as self-serve technology and its smartphone app, to enable the city to handle more volume while meeting its goal of keeping the average speed of answer below 90 seconds.

To this end, the city brought in KANA LAGAN technology in 2011. Additionally, the city revamped its website to make it more user-friendly and, as a result, boosted website hits from 20,000 to 300,000 per year. This is significant as the average agent handles 30,000 calls per year, so 300,000 hits per year equates to the workload of 10 full time agents. Average speed of answer is a key metric for the city. Three years ago, Houston 311 was averaging 111 seconds, and today we are at 66 seconds. In addition to an increased use of technology, Houston 311 incentivizes agents through a program that rewards performance by objectively measuring the quantity and quality of their calls.

1to1: Why has Houston 311 chosen to make all its performance data available via one online dashboard? Why has the city made transparency its priority?

FC: Houston 311's performance dashboards show the location of all open service requests at any given time. Once a service request is entered in the system, it appears on the map 10 minutes later. Every service request has a deadline, and citizens can see when their issue is due to be addressed. The dashboards are interactive and allow citizens to compare their super neighborhood with others. (Houston is divided into 88 super neighborhoods.) Houston opted to leverage this performance data with GIS (geographic information system) data to offer an improved citizen experience and more citizen-government transparency.

1to1: How does the city collaborate with its citizens to make Houston a better place to work and live? What role does technology play in this relationship?

FC: The dashboard views give the citizens of Houston a means to see their government at work and to track and compare the city's performance in their neighborhoods or any of Houston's 88 super neighborhoods. The dashboard interfaces with Houston's GIS system, which is a mapping function that is updated and maintained by the city's IT Department. Houston leverages GIS information in many areas to assist citizens in finding information relevant to their needs and to encourage citizen engagement.

In its continuing effort to add channels of communication, the city also launched its Houston 311 mobile app about a year and a half ago. The app enables citizens to self-report 15 different service requests. This encourages citizens to report issues in their community as they spot them. In this way, the citizen becomes the 311 agent.

1to1: What's ahead for Houston 311? How will innovation, collaboration, and technology factor into the equation as the service's relationship with citizens continues to evolve and expand?

FC: Current initiatives in the works for Houston 311 include the addition of texting as a channel to report issues and request information. Additionally, the city will be investing in a new telephony system and automated call back feature to eliminate call hold times. The City of Houston leverages citizen IT skills via Hackathon crowdsourcing to develop and implement innovative ideas. For example, 311's dashboard offering resulted from the first Hackathon. For Houston leaders, the assembled techie brainpower-ready to work for fun-is a boon for the city, which like many large American cities, is strapped for resources.

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EXPERT OPINION