Minneapolis residents often complained that the city took too much time to clean up graffiti after it was reported to the police. So, as part of the plan to implement its 311 non-emergency calling system, officials set out to improve graffiti response.

The problem was surprisingly easy to fix. The police, who had more pressing criminal activity to handle, used to receive the complaints from residents. However, before they could turn over the requests to the Public Works Department, the police had to investigate and take photos. As a result, the average cleanup could take two or three weeks.

With the 311 system, public works is notified immediately, and crews photograph the vandalism with digital cameras before cleaning up the mess. The pictures go to the police, and residents no longer have to look at graffiti. "We laid out a process using 311 that removed the bottleneck," says John Dejung, director of the city's 911/311 communications department.

Communities large and small are combining 311 non-emergency phone systems with re-engineering and customer relationship management (CRM) software to improve services at a time when local government budgets are under severe financial constraints. "311 systems are where 911 systems were in the '60s and '70s," says Cory Fleming, who directed a comprehensive study of the programs for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). "They are on the crest."

THE PREFERRED OPTION

The ICMA study, "Customer Service and 311/CRM Technology in Local Governments: Lessons on Connecting with Citizens," documents the growing use of centralized customer service systems and the increasing interest in implementing them in the nation's communities. In fact, almost 15 percent of the nation's local governments already have a system, according to a sample survey from ICMA. Communities ranging from Bethel, Ark., (population 6,356) to New York City (population 8,214,426) have adopted some form of 311 service, according to the study.

Even more revealing is that another 27 percent of the respondents from communities with more than 25,000 residents say they are considering the systems, with cost and uncertain benefits cited as the main obstacles to moving forward. "Governments are doing a lot of cost-benefit analysis," Fleming says. "But once [311 systems] are implemented, it's not something that citizens let the community give up. There are cost savings. Things get done."

The 311 number is part of a series of abbreviated dialing arrangements the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside in 1992. In 1997, the FCC specifically set aside 311 for non-emergency police and other governmental services. While 911 is a required service in every community for emergency police services, the 311 system is optional.

Although a community does not have to use a CRM system as part of its 311 implementation, CRM is almost always incorporated into the project. However, some communities install a CRM system without the 311 phone service.