Most cities and counties that have started using citizen relationship management systems (CRM) primarily see them as tools for managing information and requests from residents. However, the technology has broader applications. The following tips point out five ways cities and counties can use CRM technology more broadly in their operations.

1. CRM can automate more than service requests

Although the public sector tends to use CRM to automate public information/service centers often linked to a 311 phone number, call center automation barely scratches the surface of a CRM system's power. CRM can transform the way cities and counties operate by enabling and enhancing collaboration within agencies and among all levels of government.

CRM technology also can help cities and counties accomplish many other kinds of tasks more effectively to achieve a specific objective. For example, the technology can play a significant role in managing all of an organization's activities, relationships and contacts concerning a major issue, such as transportation. A CRM system can help manage key elements from strategic planning and the resulting decisions to paring down a list of all elected officials within a jurisdiction to an ad hoc group of only those with transportation expertise.

Before it began using CRM software, the Central Texas Council of Governments would use several lists to invite elected officials to committee meetings, which often resulted in them receiving several invitations. "[With CRM,] we are confident only one invitation is mailed to each elected official," says Michael Irvine, director of administration. "The CRM technology enables us to do this task and many others much faster and easier."

2. CRM helps manage relationships

In an age of stripped-down budgets, relationships are one of the most valuable resources to help cities and counties better fulfill their missions. Using CRM, interactions between government agencies and those on whom they depend internally and externally can be more efficient, effective and timely.

"A real value of public sector CRM is avoiding embarrassing mistakes," says Brian Churchman, director of resource management for the Association of South Central Oklahoma Governments. Those mistakes vary from mailing a letter to a deceased public official to triggering a political landmine buried in the history between a municipal power company and state utility regulators.

Often, the history of interactions between agencies is lost or hidden in paper files, and, as a result, government officials do not have access to information that would be valuable in current discussions with those agencies. In other words, what public officials do not know can have profound consequences on current relationships.

If key relationship information is scattered in multiple spreadsheets or is lost among mountains of paper files or in employees' memories, then organizations waste time answering questions such as:

  • How can we quickly find private sector partners to contribute to this urgent workforce development project?
  • How do we locate sources to help coordinate regional emergency preparedness?
  • Where do we find high-profile advocates for a particular transportation issue to help us influence public opinion?
  • Why did we not know that this elected official opposes our approach to housing the elderly?
  • Who are the local reporters who focus on environmental issues and would be interested in our biofuel power generation project?

3. CRM is about collaboration

Collaboration with other public agencies and with the private sector helps make government more efficient by combining efforts and sharing resources. However, the number of people and organizations involved complicate the process.

Social networking websites can help build relationships with the public and other partners, but information from social networks can be limited in accuracy and relevance. On top of that, confidentiality and security concerns render web-based tools unsafe to handle the non-public correspondence or interactions between a public sector organization and its key partners.

A CRM system can complement social networking strategies by quickly unearthing potential collaborative partners and documenting the organization's collaborative activities in case any future questions arise about decisions or actions. "Our CRM system enables us to prove that we sent information [agendas, notices, or letters] in a timely manner to everyone who should get it," says Deborah Barmack, executive director of San Bernardino Associated Governments.

4. CRM helps manage processes

No technology can help cities and counties if they do not know clearly what they want to achieve and how tools, such as CRM, can help them achieve their goals. The secret to public sector CRM success lies in asking and answering critical questions that include:

  • Which organizations are important enough to our mission to keep track of our relationships with them?
  • Which levels of authority in our tracked organizations are relevant to our organization's work?
  • Which issues should we track within and between our organization and other groups?

City managers, county executives, executive directors, program managers, public information officers and other line managers should be involved in developing a CRM system from the beginning to ensure that the strategic plan for implementing the technology and the processes established for using it are aligned with their organizations' responsibilities and goals. Initially, they may find it challenging to make documenting relationship activities a regular part of their work routines, which underlines the importance of making that process simple. However, they — and their staffs — are the key to making a CRM system work because they are the sources of information on many of the organization's critical collaborative and relationship interactions.

At a minimum, top-level managers should have a clear understanding of how the CRM tool can help them manage their critical relationships. They also should recognize that setting a strategic plan and establishing their process to use the CRM software effectively will address the way their organization operates, with the goal of improving it. That does not dictate draconian changes to the organization's work routine. Provided the structure and process for the CRM technology are set up correctly, using it can be phased in over time.

5. CRM helps preserve institutional memory

The real power of technology-enhanced relationship management lies in its ability to track all of a public sector organization's contacts, relationships and interactions. Knowing what happened, when it happened, and the issues associated with each event or action helps determine what should happen next, and the next steps the organization should take.

Over time, CRM technology and a rigorous process for using it establishes and maintains the public sector organization's institutional memory, retaining an ever-expanding record of all the interactions between the organization and any official, other organization or member of the public. That record remains intact and does not depend on the recollections of staff who, when they leave or retire, take critical relationship and historical knowledge with them if it is not documented and retained. "There is a wealth of organizational history in the database that I can look up quickly," Irvine says of his organization's CRM system.

If the CRM technology is implemented properly, the return on investment is enormous. Most important, managing relationships using a CRM system provides a basis for strategic organizational management that no one would have believed possible just a few short years ago.

  • Read the "5 tips for choosing a CRM system" sidebar to take the confusion out of the growing range of choices in pricing and features available in public sector CRM products.

Ted Hoisington is president of Garland, Texas-based TH Enterprises. To contact Ted and obtain a free white paper on choosing public sector CRM, visit www.ps-nexus.com.