Driving home at 2 a.m., a resident who works the second shift passes a building that has been newly desecrated with graffiti. Shortly after, he pulls into his driveway only to discover his trash was never picked up that day. And, at 3 a.m., while still wide awake, he suddenly remembers the water bill is due. While he would like to report the problems and pay that pesky bill right away, and his city has an easy-to-remember 311 system for calling about such matters, its hours of operation end at 11 p.m.

Never fear. The computer is here.

New York may have long ago earned the title as the city that never sleeps, but in today's busy 24/7 society, that description can be applied just about everywhere. Recognizing that work does not just get done between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. anymore, many customer-service-oriented cities have created Web-based service request systems to make local government accessible any time of the day or night.

Tying into existing software

Minneapolis launched a 311 service with integrated customer relationship management (CRM) software by Bethesda, Md.-based Lagan in January 2006, and one year later, it introduced the online complement to the system. With that addition, residents now can report a variety of issues, such as potholes or code violations, by either calling a live agent who asks a series of questions that the city department resolving the issue will need to know, or by logging on to the city Web site to describe the problem. Customers using the online service are prompted to answer the same series of questions the live agents ask, and the responses are funneled through the same CRM system as in the live operations. However, whereas the live 311 agents can answer questions and log service requests for any city department, online service requests are limited to functions of the Public Works Department until the city can add the rest.

Residents who use the online system can include electronic images of the problems with the service requests. “People carry digital cameras or have those capabilities on their cell phones, and our system lets them attach photographs of the problems they are reporting,” says 311 Manager Don Stickney. He says the city receives many pictures of graffiti and nuisance complaints, like bent stop signs, attached to online requests. “It really helps the city in the enforcement process,” he says.