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6citiesWith the rise of digital, cities are pressed to answer demand for high citizen engagement with minimal – or preferably no- face-to-face involvement. The typical tool for this kind of automation has been 311, the nationally established speed dial number for non-emergency service calls. Since it was officially designated in 1996, cities have employed 311 in the form of citizen call centers and more recently, mobile apps that can do everything from report potholes to facilitate chat sessions with city staff.

Now, officials seek to add a more formal structure to the budding service. In October, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., and Mecklenburg County, N.C., announced a partnership christened as the National 311 Executive Council. The seven-jurisdiction collaboration is positioned as a repository for 311 data, best practices, standards and policies.

As 311 program director at the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), Cory Fleming is the group’s facilitator. Fleming and the ICMA took a consulting role in the group largely for research on 311 best practices that analyzed hundreds of customer service centers and 311 programs from 2006 to 2011. The partnership is expected to further similar research.

“This group represents some of the largest 311 centers in the country,” Fleming said. “The reason they came together is because 311 doesn’t have any kind of central repository for all of the information collected.”

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Fleming continued to say the goal is “to create some standards and develop some research that shows the return on investment and cost benefit analysis that’s associated with 311 centers.”

For its first year, 3 projects are pinned down. The first centers on metrics and is a run to scout 311 programs for comparative measurements of citizen service. The second – a hunt for new 311 offerings – weighs compatible customer service models that enable innovative new tools and functions. And the third project, a data repository, attempts to engineer a research database for 311 centers nationwide, emphasizing education and front-running practices.

Rosetta Carrington Lue, executive director of Philly 311, hosted the group’s first in-person meeting this summer and said, based on her experience, and the growth of 311, she sees the collaborative endeavor as pioneering. In Philadelphia alone, Lue said the city averages more than 1.5 million 311 requests each year. And these, through the city’s app and call center, represent valuable data sets that amplify leadership’s understanding of specific city geographies and demographics.

Fleming said the 311 council will continue to add projects gradually based on progress. She believes momentum will only increase, comparing the 311 movement to the emergence of 911 systems during the 70s and 80s.