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How and Why Every Community Should Offer 311 Services

Rajiv Desai | June 29, 2022

4 Minute Read


Since the 1990s, many cities have started offering 311 services to help residents find information, request city services, and report issues in their communities. These non-emergency resources reduce congestion on emergency hotlines and improve the relationship between constituents and their local governments by opening up new channels for community engagement.

In 2013, city officials from across the country met to plan an expansion, to turn 311 from a simple call center into a multimedia hub, city data source, and community engagement tool.

While technology has helped in many ways, tech is only so helpful with a thoughtful and informed strategy behind it — without these, how do citizens of a given community know the kind of requests or services they can request from their public organizations?

The State of 311 Services Today

These days, 311 services have mostly evolved into broader digital tools and processes that we’ll talk about shortly, often called “service request management.” For simplicity, we’ll continue referring to them as 311 services.

Unfortunately, many of 311 services are planned and deployed without enough data or forward vision, making them less helpful or relevant to the population they serve. And how can a government properly serve its constituents without properly understanding them first?

Without adequate engagement with the population, city leaders miss out on opportunities to improve service delivery, collect valuable data about the issues residents are facing, and to correct many small issues before they grow into bigger problems. Citizens, on the other hand, can grow frustrated with (and disconnected from) their governments.

The starting point for any organization making a public service like this should be to put together a portal that informs the citizens about the various services and information they can request from the government. It should also inform them of events and activities where they can collaborate with the government, thereby lowering barriers to citizen engagement.

Fortunately, there are great ways to offer 311 services like this, which are adjustable to citizen needs and available resources.

311 Services Beyond a Hotline

Once a public service organization for a given constituent is able to map out the services that the local community can request from them, then comes the task of deploying a solution that acts as a gateway through which all these requests come into the system.

When Baltimore introduced the first 311 number for non-emergency calls in 1996, the service quickly gained traction with Baltimoreans. By 2012, the hotline was handling more than one million calls annually.

In the beginning, 311 was treated more like a contact center, but as technology progressed and people understood the importance of gathering and managing actionable data, the same call evolved into a full-fledged system to not only collect service requests, but also provide valuable insights about the local community.

Today’s solutions have evolved to include self-service channels, which allow citizens to get the help they need while also helping local governments get actionable data to benefit the community. Digital portals have also expanded to different toolsets to focus on more specific needs — similar to how 311 itself was created to let 911 focus on emergencies. These include platforms for permits and licensing for instance, as well as more robust service request management systems.

In the newest evolution of these systems, governments are increasingly adopting “virtual city halls,” which provide a range of services and seamless communication across channels.

Omnichannel Citizen Self-Service

The Introduction of Omnichannel 311 Services

Successful private companies have long recognized the value of self-service options. According to a report from Zendesk, 69 percent of consumers say they would rather resolve issues themselves than speak with a live customer service representative, especially when the issue is relatively straightforward.

So, companies offer their customers multiple options for engagement, like email, social media, chatbots, mobile and web portals, and more, taking pressure off of call centers and improving customer experiences in the process. The public sector can draw inspiration from this trend to improve citizen experience, while implementing 311 services that are customized for the needs of the community.

Here are a few of the digital channels for 311 services that communities choose to offer:

  • Mobile Apps — Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and many others have launched mobile 311 apps that allow residents to quickly and easily make service requests from their smartphones. Better yet, the quality of requests made through mobile apps is often much higher, thanks to features that allow residents to submit photographs or GPS coordinates.

  • Chatbots — Textable chatbots can be programmed to answer frequently asked questions, so residents can find important information 24/7 without calling a hotline. If the chatbot gets stumped, it can be programmed to automatically transfer residents to a live representative.

  • Web and mobile portals — Many residents would prefer to access 311 services by Googling their issue and then filling out a quick web form. Online portals allow residents to search for things like “report a pothole,” and submit their service requests to the city in seconds.

  • Email — Email is another popular channel for 311 services, especially in communities with limited resources where long hold times may be a concern, or where it isn’t feasible to have live agents available around the clock.

  • Social media — Finally, many communities offer 311 services through social media, allowing residents to engage with their local government and file service requests via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Whatever mix of channels cities choose to offer, integration is key. Residents should have a seamless experience moving from one channel to the next, and city workers should be able to easily track the status of service requests and provide updates to residents, regardless of which channel they arrived through. 

In fact, empowering your community to engage with city services through these channels can also help smaller communities more easily manage the service requests they receive, as long as it’s done in conjunction with a strong service request management system. When staff and resources are limited, the added efficiency, clarity, and automation these systems provide can make all the difference to community staff and the public.

Offering 311 Services Through a Virtual City Hall

What started as simple contact centers with hotline numbers has grown into service request management portals that are now popular. But lately, more organizations are starting to adopt “Virtual Engagement Spaces,” facilitating more citizen involvement and participation.

The most promising area in this space is what we’ve coined a Virtual City Hall, where residents and city workers interact seamlessly across all channels, without needing to set up their own integrations, and without spending long months or years getting the systems in place.

We believe Virtual City Halls are the future of community engagement. With these, small towns, rural areas, and communities facing budget constraints aren’t left behind, and larger municipalities have access to solutions that work at scale. To learn more about the technologies that make 311 services accessible to all, check out this guide.

Delivering Omnichannel Citizen Self-Service