In August, Houston launched a 311 telephone system to manage residents' requests for city services. It is one of 36 local governments that have implemented 311 to divert non-emergency calls from 911 centers and to improve customer service.

The Federal Communications Commission designated 311 as a national non-emergency number in 1997, following a request by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Months before that, acting on evidence that most 911 calls were for non-emergencies, COPS had established a Non-Emergency Telecommunications Pilot Project, making Baltimore its first grant recipient.

Implemented in 1996, Baltimore's 311 system had a dramatic impact on the city's 911 service. In a report to COPS in 2000, the city's police department noted several improvements. For example:

  • the average answer time for 911 calls, as well as the percentage of abandoned calls, was reduced by 50 percent;
  • the average time between incoming 911 calls increased from 70 to 143 seconds;
  • the percentage of calls receiving a recorded message was reduced from 18 percent to 4 percent;
  • the average “total position busy” time was reduced by 169 hours each month; and
  • the percentage of time operators were busy on calls was reduced from 59 percent to 41 percent.

Like Baltimore, Houston implemented its 311 system in hopes of reducing 911 congestion. (In 1999, when Houston's project began, up to 35 percent of the city's 911 calls were for non-emergencies.) Additionally, it viewed the system as a means of improving its customer service operations.

Working with Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys, the city designed and installed a computer system to automate management of service requests received via telephone, e-mail and surface mail. Based on data gathered from customers and input by operators, the system generates work orders, dispatches the orders to the appropriate departments and tracks the orders through completion.

Operators work from a script of intake questions when answering calls. Additionally, they can provide scripted answers to callers' questions by searching an online database of frequently asked questions. By typing in a key word from the customer's inquiry, operators often can access the answers and “close” the calls without generating work orders or transferring calls to city departments. Furthermore, they can access caller histories, allowing them to update customers about service requests.

In addition to standardizing equipment and operator responses, Houston has centralized its customer service operations. From a single location, 64 operators handle an average of 4,500 calls per weekday, and they process another 600 calls on weekends.

According to Hollingsworth, the new system has already made a significant impact by improving customer service efficiency and, in at least one case, boosting revenue. “The system is interfaced with the municipal court for the purpose of accessing outstanding traffic violations,” he says. “Thirty-one percent of our calls are from people [inquiring about] their traffic tickets. We can tell them how much they owe and then give them information about paying with a credit card. Giving them that information [through 311] increased our revenue in September by $100,000.”

The system's impact on Houston's 911 center is yet to be measured. However, the city is launching a 311 marketing campaign — including 100 billboards announcing the new service — and Hollingsworth predicts that the non-emergency traffic to 911 will drop as a result. (Currently, if a non-emergency call comes into the 911 center, the attending operator can transfer it directly to 311; similarly, 311 has direct transfer capabilities to link emergency callers with 911. If either center receives a non-emergency call that requires police attention, it can transfer the caller directly to the police department.)

Houston spent $2.5 million to establish its 311 helpline. That cost includes the purchase of hardware, multiple software modules, professional services for interface development, and furniture and wall boards for the call center. The city's capital outlay was partially offset by a COPS grant of $637,000.

According to Hollingsworth, Houston's 311 system will save the city money over the long term, but its real value is in boosting customer satisfaction. “This system gives citizens a single, easy-to-remember number to access city services,” he says. “And it provides for accountability throughout.”

For more information about 311 implementation, visit the COPS Web site at www.usdoj.gov/cops.