311 services and “citizen-relationship management”

Instinctively, I believe Brighton and Hove should have its own “311” service, a means by which citizens with non-emergency needs can access the information they require about public and community services, in an easy and speedy fashion.

Furthermore, I feel that such an innovation is intimately bound up with the creation of an open-data city. Data generated by citizens seeking a service can identify gaps in provision, build a knowledge base for immediate use, and inform strategic solutions in the longer term.

The purpose of this post is to give an overview of “311” services, particularly in the United States, and to support those who argue for such a service to be introduced in Brighton and Hove.

The first 311 service appears to have been introduced in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1996; the biggest one, in New York City, was initiated in 2003.

The 311 number was reserved for non-emergency municipal services throughout Canada in 2004; the first Canadian service was in Calgary, Alberta in 2005.

My interest in 311 and open data was reinforced by a remarkable article in Wired magazine in November 2010: What 100 million calls to 311 reveal about New York. It includes this paragraph:

“Launched in March 2003, 311 now fields on average more than 50,000 calls a day, offering information about more than 3,600 topics: school closings, recycling rules, homeless shelters, park events, pothole repairs. The service has translators on call to handle some 180 different languages.”

Unsurprisingly, customer satisfaction is outstanding.

Last year, several of the chief information officers leading the open-data cities movement in the United States threw their weight behind an “Open 311” initiative.

Vivek Kundra, the first US chief information officer (a pioneering appointment by Barack Obama in March 2009), said:

“Too often, people grumble that their complaints about government – be it city, county, state, or federal – get swallowed by the bureaucracy. Open 311 is an answer to that problem, placing the role of service evaluator and service dispatcher in the power of citizens’ hands.”

The Open 311 approach enables new web-based applications that use real-time data to allow citizens to track the status of repairs or improvements, while also allowing them to make new requests for services. The possibilities of such an approach are articulated in early services such as SeeClickFix.

There are already significant lessons to be learned from the North American experience. Specifically, it is clear that first-class, round-the-clock service – by telephone, web and mobile – is fundamental, supported by robust citizen-relationship-management software.

In the United States, the Public Technology Institute has designated nine local governments as “citizen-engaged communities”. The resources the institute provides have included Six Key Strategies: Multi-channel Contact Centers.

Closer to home, Vicky Sargent‘s work for Socitm (Society of IT Managers), as reported in The Guardian, seems to point in the right direction. So does the appointment of Joe Harley, as the UK’s chief information officer.

But it’s cities such as Brighton and Hove that can lead the way. And a citywide 311 service could be a great first step. What do you think? Email greghadfield@hotmail.com.

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About Greg Hadfield

Greg Hadfield is editorial director of Brighton & Hove Independent, a free weekly newspaper. He is a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur (including Soccernet and Schoolsnet).
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One Response to 311 services and “citizen-relationship management”

  1. Pingback: Open Knowledge Foundation Blog » Blog Archive » Open Data in Brighton and Hove

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