A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 print issue with the headline: The engagement ring.

Like the private sector, local government contact centers often determine its residents' perceptions of them. Its seamless service must engage and enable them to interact through multi-channels, and then demonstrate accountability through performance reporting, not just for calls, but also for service delivery.

The Public Technology Institute (PTI) recently announced 16 winners of its Citizen-Engaged Communities for 2012-2014. PTI created the program to recognize excellence in multi-channel contact centers and best practices for the use of Citizen Relationship/Records Management (CRM) systems, 311 services, web portal technology, telephony systems, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and mobile communications infrastructure. Good customer service and processes characterize the winning package, both wrapped in today's technology for fast, friendly and responsive service.

Shared elements of excellence

Since the FCC approved the national three-digit number 311 in 1997, call centers created to divert non-emergency calls from 911 operators have evolved into proficient, multi-channel customer service centers.

Although the three-digit number certainly is convenient for residents, many communities with 311 cost barriers have built very successful contact centers with their seven-digit numbers. A total of 6 of the 16 high performing designated cities and counties are using a seven-digit phone number, with 7 using both seven-digit and 311 numbers and 3 using only 311.

All designated communities use a variety of technology tools for ongoing resident input, the most common being multi-channel surveys. The City and County of Denver has a robust mix of feedback tools, including call-backs, surveys, focus groups and registered neighborhood organizations. Results are communicated through a report package and also guide the focus of their call center performance metrics. Ann Arbor has a crowdsourcing online public comment forum, called A2 Open City Hall, available in multiple languages.

This past year, the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County's Quality Assurance Team surveyed approximately 100 customers monthly. On a 5-point scale, CharMeck 311 received an average score of 4.5 and agents received an average score of 4.6. To provide an independent review, an outside company hosted a biannual survey of an additional 900 customers, which resulted in an 8.75 approval rating on a 10-point scale.

The resident data collected by Philadelphia's contact center are used in citywide performance management and in the PhillyRising initiative to prepare for community meetings and partnerships that target neighborhoods with chronic crime and quality of life concerns.

The power of technology has enabled local government contact centers to move well beyond call transfer processes and afford both excellent customer service and substantial cost efficiencies for resident communications. All 16 designees have systems integrated with GIS, significantly enhancing automated location data.

With the integrated systems characteristic of this year's 16 designated communities, all of the contact centers not only provide multiple channel options and knowledgeable responses to inquiries, but also issue the service requests that get pot holes repaired, stray animals collected and high weeds mowed.