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311 Community Contact Center Committed to Improved Caller Experience, Better Results

Leaders outline challenges, progress at community information hub.

February 10, 2020

In front of a backdrop of 311 specialists taking calls from the public, City of Albuquerque leaders outlined steps they’ve taken to improve the service and additional targets for improvement in 2020.

“311 is a problem-solving center: we answer questions for the public and use information the public gives us to get out there and fix issues,” said Mayor Tim Keller. “But it’s also had its challenges, some of which we have solved, and others we are working to solve to improve service for our residents.”

“At its best, 311 makes government accessible and easy to navigate, improving quality of life for residents,” said Carrie Prothero, 311 Contact Center Division Manager. “When residents contact us, they don’t have to navigate the complicated system of who at the City does what and where. With one call they have the correct information or we’ve sent their request where it needs to go.”

311 takes nearly 900,000 requests for service or questions per year through the call center, on mobile platforms like the OneABQ app, or online at www.cabq.gov/abq311. In 2018, the City added the convenience of using Amazon Alexa to contact 311. Representatives also attend dozens of events per year to interact in person.

In January of 2020, the most common calls were for bus information (17, 731), missed trash pickup or other solid waste (12,218), animal welfare (6,402), municipal development or street repair (2,363), and planning or code violations (1,515).

311 sends service requests to departments by sending a case ticket. The department then fixes the problem and closes the ticket. Based on a high number of unresolved tickets when he took office, Mayor Tim Keller instituted a monthly reporting process of unresolved reports.

The Mayor’s office prioritized getting departments to take action on unresolved issues or, in some cases, simply come into alignment by reporting completed work back to 311. In two years, unresolved tickets across the City have dropped by almost 90%. Those numbers are led by a 99% drop in Animal Welfare, part of a major turnaround in that department, a 93% drop in transit, and an 85% drop in Solid Waste.

311 also closely tracks how long it takes to answer calls and the quality of calls, factors driven largely by staffing levels. This year the center has met its staffing goals for the first time since tracking began at the start of the Keller administration. 90% of calls are now answered within 30 seconds, and each agent has the capacity to focus fully on the quality of each call. Additionally, 311 has five Spanish speakers to eliminate language barriers to service.

The City has examined the possibility of keeping the call center open around the clock. Staffing the center 24 hours a day, seven days a week would add about a half million dollars to the 311 budget. In the meantime, the One Albuquerque app makes it possible to get information and report issues 24 hours a day.

“While we are excited about the progress we’ve been able to make in the last two years, we have also identified longer-term issues that we will continue to tackle, and that’s our focus moving forward,” said Brian Osterloh, whose Department of Technology and Innovation oversees the 311 systems.

Call Response Times

The 311 contact center is now fully staffed and on track to meet this service level for the 4th month in a row, something that has not been accomplished since 2015. Over the last few years, the City has added at least 10 new staff members to 311. The City decreased the time to hire at 311 from about 180 days to about 85 days, effectively giving 311 three additional full-time employees without adding budget.

Closing Out 311 Calls

Handoffs to Third Parties. Callers to 311 are persistently frustrated when they find the City does not control the issue they are reporting. In the past, callers were referred to the outside agency that could help and the call was closed. While that may be appropriate in some cases, the public should be able to rely on the City to track some issues, like broken streetlights.

PNM owns streetlights in the oldest parts of town. With the conversion of City-owned lights to LED, a third-party provider named Citelum handles repairs. In the past, broken streetlight callers were told to call one of two secondary service providers. Now, 311 simplifies the process for residents by identifying right away whether it is a City or a PNM-owned light. They then send a ticket to the Department of Municipal Development (DMD) to take over the process of working with the responsible party.

For City-owned lights, DMD routes the issue to Citelum and closes the ticket. Citelum then reports back monthly to DMD. We are developing a system wherein Citelum will report back immediately each time they fix a light.  For PNM-owned lights, DMD sends PNM a notice and then closes the ticket. There is no current system in place for PNM to report back to the City when a light is fixed, but the City is working on an MOU that would require lights reported to PNM be repaired within 72 hours.

Handoffs to Other Internal Systems. Over time the City implemented various systems across departments to manage work orders. There is a program called Chameleon for Animal Welfare, Posse for Planning, and Yardi for Parks and Recreation.

311 was closing tickets when the issue was referred to any one of these other systems. That led to an issue with calls showing as closed in the 311 system before the problem was actually fixed. To fix this, 311 worked with individual departments to connect, and sometimes create, interfaces between each of these other systems and our 311 system.

Just 10 days ago, the City integrated the Posse system used by the Planning Department, and now, requests that go to Planning stay open in both systems until it has been resolved. Once the ticket has been resolved at Planning, it is closed in both the Posse and 311 systems. 

Using Data to Drive Change

While the City’s goal is to respond to every resident’s issue as quickly as possible, each request that comes in is balanced against all the other ways City resources are being used. Using 311 data, decision-makers are identifying problems when they are on the rise and using that data to change how resources are used. When resources are limited, call center specialists can be clear about what residents can expect when they report an issue.

Missed Trash Pickups. Missed trash pickups are a frequent driver of 311 calls. Over 2,100 of the roughly 12,000 calls for Solid Waste were for missed trash pickups.  Based on data from 311, Solid Waste hired an extra staffer dedicated to managing missed trash pickups. In addition, 311 changed the script for missed trash pick-up calls, which ensures callers have an accurate expectation for when their missed trash pickup will be collected.

Homeless Camp Triage. Formerly, reports related to homelessness were universally routed to 242-COPS. Working closely with departments, 311 found it was more efficient to triage these calls based on location. Now, encampments on City property are routed to Family and Community Services’ (FCS) Outreach Coordinator. Debris under highways were once routed to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, but are now referred to Solid Waste.

This change made it clear the City needed more resources for encampment clean up. The Family & Community Services Department hired a full-time outreach manager for homeless encampments, which also helped ensure that people who are camping illegally are connected to services and shelter.

Cracked Streets. The City also receives dozens of calls per day about cracked streets, but does not have crew capacity to respond to each call in the moment. Instead, departments take a data-driven approach. When the crack is not in need of an immediate fix, DMD uses 311 data to help set priorities for its annual streets maintenance plan.

The City also changed the 311 script so the caller knows if their call is being addressed through the annual planning process.

Sharps. In analyzing unclosed tickets, the new administration found that multiple departments were specifically responsible for picking up sharps. By making Parks and Recreation the lead agency for sharps, the administration increased efficiency and accountability in an important public safety area.

Sharps calls also took a lot of time to respond to, because if they were reported in a location like a park, it would take a worker quite a bit of time to find and remove it. Now reports of sharps can be made through the One ABQ app, where you may also submit a photo of the location. That helps the City respond to those calls more quickly.

Abandoned Vehicles

Duplicate and ghost tickets, which refer to multiple calls on one issue, or calls on an issue that is resolved by the time a department goes out to check on it, are also consistent issues. This was especially a problem with abandoned vehicles. The Keller administration inherited a list of unresolved abandoned vehicle reports that numbered in the thousands, many of them several years old.

Abandoned vehicle calls must be verified in person. It quickly became evident that personally checking each of these old calls was not the best use of taxpayer time and money. In March of 2019, the City closed old outstanding tickets. Responders were then able to prioritize handling and closing the remaining tickets more efficiently. Since we closed the old cases, we have received over 3,000 new cases. As of February 5, 2020, only 467 of those cases remained.

A multidepartment task force including DMD Security, Parking Enforcement, APD, and 311 is tackling the remaining backlog and managing new reports as they come in. Using a report generated by 311, the team compares cases to eliminate clear duplicates before sending inspectors out to the field. Of the 275 referrals for Abandoned Vehicles in January, 116 vehicles were tagged, and 14 were towed. Vehicles on public property are referred to the Abandoned Vehicle Unit, vehicles on private property are referred to code enforcement. The process to remove a vehicle from private property is considerably more time-intensive.

Fourth of July

In 2019, miscommunication between Albuquerque Fire and Rescue and 311 led to both department call centers being closed on the Fourth of July. While the 311 website and One ABQ app were still available, frustrated residents could not call in a report of illegal fireworks. That’s changing this year, as 311 will remain open and serve as the official point of contact for these non-emergency reports. In the event of a fire or other emergency, residents should, as always, call 911. And, as in many areas, the One ABQ app remains the most efficient way to make those reports when the technology is available.

As more trends demonstrating the needs of the community are revealed and the City continues to collaborate interdepartmentally and with community partners, 311 will continue to update and improve their practices in supporting all departments, divisions, and the public.