CRM and 311 systems are becoming pivotal to 21st century local governance. We wanted to know more about their history, evolution, and best practices.
For that, there is no one more knowledgeable than Cory Fleming, Program Director of 311/CRM Consulting Services at the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). Cory joined ICMA in 2003, leading multiple grant-backed research studies into the effectiveness of 311 in local governments. She now works with local governments to find the best data management solutions for their needs.
We spoke with her about the emerging trends in local government data management and came away incredibly excited for the future!
How have cities’ use of CRMs evolved over the past five years?
311/CRM systems have definitely changed since 2009 in part because technology has continued to evolve. But when 311 was first introduced in mid-1990’s, it was to offload 911 calls. Non-emergency calls were interfering with the ability of police, fire service and EMS to respond to the real emergencies like fires and robberies. The role of 311 has evolved to focus on customer service and more. Many systems are now innovation hubs for local government. What needs will be addressed by a 311/CRM system depends largely what the jurisdiction needs. In South Carolina, for example, constituents will have questions about recovery assistance following hurricane Joaquin and that’s something a 311/CRM system can do.
Performance management is another way 311/CRMs systems have changed the way cities operate due to wealth of data they generate. Governments can now push out information needed by citizens as well as taking in information about work order requests. For example, we can notify citizens on our twitter feed about document shredding days at City Hall or the location of snow plows during a storm. Cities are getting information out to citizens before they have to call in.
Are you seeing products built for all sizes of local government or generally just big cities?
The majority of the US population is covered by a 311 system. Especially in the larger cities — New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco — with a few notable holdouts. What we’ve seen over time is going from 311/CRMs being implemented only in larger cities to smaller and mid-sized cities and counties developing systems. I’m seeing a lot of more inquiries in the population range of 40,000-250,000 lately.
With the great recession in 2008-09, cities didn’t think they could afford to build out new systems, but the opposite was actually true. The need was as great as ever. The most important thing about 311 systems: if you do business mapping and process analysis, you realize where you can eliminate inefficiency. That’s a cost savings that’s really helpful when you’re trying to cut back.
Another worry from the past couple of years are the retirement of Baby Boomers. When long-time staff members begin to retire, cities lose all of that collective knowledge of how and why processes and procedures were adopted. If that information isn’t captured and documented, cities have to start over from ground zero. That is a huge waste of staff time which CRMs can help mitigate this risk.
What are the biggest worries that you hear from potential adopters?
Cost is always one of them. And the cost depends largely on what a city needs. What are their requirements from a system? When I speak with local government officials, this is how I put it: I can buy a VW or I can buy a Mercedes. It all depends on what their needs are.
Securing buy-in from other departments and staff is another important piece. Implementing a 311/CRM system is seen as just a technology initiative by many, but more importantly, it is a change management process. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll use. And if no one uses it, you’re not going to fix the problems that sold you on it in the first place.
What is your favorite success story of a local government adopting a new 311/CRM system?
Philadelphia is one of my personal favorites. They developed a community portal that can be used by neighborhood groups to schedule meetings and report problems. But they didn’t stop with the technology. They developed an active neighborhood liaison program, with over 1,000 volunteers, who were trained in this CRM to make requests on behalf of neighbors. It really opened up the local government to a much wider range of constituents. They thought, “Hey! I can get things done and not have to know someone in city hall.” That empowerment went a long way to getting citizens involved.
The inside story is just as interesting. Philadelphia hired their 311 director, Rosetta Carrington Lue, in 2008. She believed that customer service has to be a focus and concern across local government. It’s not the responsibility of one office, it’s the responsibility of all departments in local government. She is now the city’s Chief Customer Service Officer for the city. Her approach to tackling these problems, of getting buy-in across the city and from community leaders, has and continues to be innovative and creative.
What it really comes down to is leadership at the executive level. Someone — be that a mayor, council member or city manager — to champion the program and then follow through and continue to advocate that changes be made.They have to be at the forefront at all times. And beyond buy-in, educating staff on how to actually use the technology once it gets built is just as important. How do we use this system for better data management? That education starts before implementation. It starts with readiness assessments, with mapping out requirements, and setting expectations of what we want to get out of this.
San Antonio is another great example of efficiency gains from good data management. Several years back, I met with the then director of environmental services. He told me about how he drilled into data on bulk item pickup requests. These are really costly for the city, to send out a truck and a crew to pick up huge items. Based on where the requests were most frequently occurring in a neighborhood, he organized quarterly pickup to centralize that work. Instead of going to someone’s house on Tuesday and then getting a call from their neighbor on Thursday, they have a quarterly pickup in the area. They hosted education program with information packets to educate their constituents on the new program and it was a huge success for the city and the constituents.
What do you see as the biggest trend in the space over the next 5 years?
Two major trends that I would highlight:
First: a lot more communication. Nonprofits and neighborhood groups have lots of data, and combining their data with local governments means new types of analyses can be developed. From neighborhood issues to topical issues like public health, if we are not combining our data with others, we’re missing out on a massive opportunity.
The second is opinion polling. During the recession in 2008-09, Philadelphia had to implement budget cuts. The mayor wanted to gauge temperature of what was important to citizens, and asked residents to call Philly311 with their priorities. Polling residents helped drive decisions about where to make cuts in the budget.
“Data-driven decision making” is the phrase you hear a lot these days. It means not relying on just personal instinct to tell you what people care about, but rather using data to help make important decisions.
What resources does ICMA provide for city officials looking to explore or implement a 311/CRM platform?
ICMA has numerous reports and case studies that are easily accessible. You can download them for free straight from our website at www.icma.org/311.
We’re kind of matchmakers, introducing new communities to those with established 311/CRM systems, which has been a tremendous asset for cities just getting started. For example, if you’re a city with 40,000 residents, we can pair you up with someone who has experience in a similar population range. Sharing that knowledge and experience is an important part of both education and getting buy-in.
We also provide a variety of consulting services, working with local government to develop a 311 governance structure and define the requirements needed from a system. We help communities with the vendor selection process and again connecting them with others who have done this before.
Has there been a shift towards/away cities implementing 311/CRMs themselves versus using external software?
San Antonio, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, Los Alamos County in New Mexico, and a few others developed their own in-house systems before moving to an off-the-shelf solutions. Most of those systems have been replaced over the past five years. It’s critical to use vendors who have experience in the field and understand how local government works. Customer service in the public sector is different than in the private sector. When considering a system, think configuration over customization.
How do you think CRM needs differ from elected officials to city employees (if any)?
Elected officials need the big picture data and what’s happening in their district or ward. The 311 center can prepare reports based on a geographic district, which helps officials focus the data they care about. For mayors or county judges, they want to see the whole picture.
The front line staff, those answering the phones and emails from constituents, have needs that are more day-to-day and operational in nature. Do we have enough staff to reach service level agreement (SLA) we have set for ourselves? What does it cost to fix a pothole and is there a better way to do that?
The department heads will then look at this information to see if there are different processes or procedures that could make things run more smoothly. For example, if we’re repaving your street next month, it doesn’t make sense to go out and fix a pothole this week.
What steps are cities taking to advance their technology while much of their staff proceeds into retirement?
They are starting to see it as a priority. Succession planning, with a retiring generation as we spoke about before, is at the top of their minds. They aren’t yet documenting how they do things, but most realize that they will have staff members retiring in the near future. It is generally a time problem: if you’re always putting out fires, you don’t have enough time to plan and rethink your systems.
What other organizations should local governments be aware of?
There are two organizations people should know about in addition to ICMA.
First is AGCCP — the Association of Government Contact Center Professionals. They are focused on helping improve the day-to-day service quality for your 311 team. The CS Week’s 311 Synergy Group is another great resource. They have a wealth of educational programming for professionals in the field.
Thank you Cory for taking the time to speak with us and share your unique insights into CRM and 311 technology in local government!