Better Communities Start with Better Listening

via Alliance for Innovation
 
City of Ann Arbor, MI
Population: 117,025
Area: 28.7 sq miles

The Problem

The City of Ann Arbor has always been driven to listen to its citizens. This drive is shown in the City’s continual efforts to deploy and develop cutting edge technological solutions that evolve with the needs and habits of Ann Arborites.

Among the many services provided by the city, Ann Arbor has a history of using technology to prioritize inbound service requests that are submitted by citizens and other members of the community. Initially, these service requests were submitted to the City by phone, e-mail and in-person visits. More recently, the City harnessed a web-based on-line system (CRS) that integrated with the City’s asset management system—Cityworks. While this solution was moderately successful, there were holes in the feedback loop between completed work and citizen notifications. In November 2012, Ann Arbor officials knew that there must be a better way to keep citizens informed and keep City services connected to the public. What followed was a concerted effort to improve efficiency and engagement by leveraging mobile and web technologies. Many individuals and departments within Ann Arbor drove this effort — to learn more, we spoke with Cityworks Administrator Dave Wilburn and Communications Specialist Robert Kellar.

The City of Ann Arbor is driven by technology and when it comes to asset maintenance, that technology is Cityworks. “We’ve been utilizing Cityworks for about the past ten years now,” said Dave Wilburn, Cityworks Administrator at the City of Ann Arbor, “It has become ingrained in our organization.” Although the city was accustomed to using the Cityworks system, their CRS failed to keep up with the way their citizens preferred to communicate. “Previously, we were using an antiquated system,” said Robert Kellar, “People could call or email requests, which would then be routed by staff into the CityWorks system. From the beginning, as someone who came from the campaign world and private sector, this did not seem to serve customers well.”

Like most of the world, Ann Arborites were replacing phone and email communication with mobile applications in increasing numbers. In parallel to this growing trend, there was a growing expectation from citizens that the City would provide immediate access and/or communication with their local government via these devices. “The path we were on was unsustainable,” said Kellar about this shift, “So many other cities were doing something and we couldn’t sit on our hands. Sixty-five percent of Ann Arborites are under sixty-five years of age, and Ann Arbor is one of the most educated communities in the world. Our city needed technological solutions that fit our lives.”

Not only was the City’s original CRS an ineffective way to listen to their citizens, but it also was not a cost-effective model. The City was incurring increased costs by not providing a more effective tool for citizen self-service (as well as reduced staff time). “If a customer called, it was upwards of $4 for that particular [service request],” said Wilburn, “While a report indicated that a self-service request is a just little over $2.” Additionally, the required maintenance on an outdated application became an increasing recurring cost. Lastly, the City experienced increased costs by gathering information in more traditional methods that could have been streamlined and automated by using their own citizens to help provide important information on the City infrastructure and services.

To address these City and citizen needs, the City of Ann Arbor began a search for a new CRS system that would afford citizens the opportunity to more easily submit requests. In addition, the City sought a more cost-effective tool that harnessed the voice of their citizens to reduce costs and staff time.

The City had many criteria when they began considering a new system. Ann Arbor was looking for either an “out of the box” or custom programing system that came at a reasonable cost. Additionally, there were specific features that they sought in an upgraded website CRS (wCRS) and mobile CRS (mCRS):

Must be fully integrated with Cityworks
Allows customers to capture an image with mobile device and send request immediately
Provides customer service improvement with the geolocation capability of phone
Shows all requests entered by the mCRS and the wCRS related to a particular issue
Shows a user their requests and associated status
Must function on Android/iOS/Windows based smart phones and tablets (mCRS)
Provides customer feedback and information
Critical success factors for a successful implementation of a mCRS and wCRS:
Reduced staff time for entering, processing and responding to customer requests
Increased notifications from and to customers on active issues
Increased requests submitted to system by 10%

The Solution

“The choice of SeeClickFix was simple,” said Kellar, “We chose the platform that integrated into our current system and was the most palatable to the consumer.”

When the City of Ann Arbor began looking to replace their system, they explored many companies. “We chose SeeClickFix because the process needed to be driven by our own backend,” said Kellar, ”Another company had integration with social media but those ended up only being candles on the birthday cake.” Although all companies offered small pieces that interested the City, integrating with CityWorks became the most important issue. “You can have the bells and whistles but if the backend isn’t working it isn’t effective,” said Kellar, ”like driving a ferrari that breaks down all of the time.”

Beyond being able to integrate into CityWorks, the SeeClickFix platform afforded the best user experience on both the citizen and government-facing sides. The platform can be used across Android/iOS/Windows based smart phones and tablets. This gives a citizen a mobile experience. “Having a mobile presence was a big deal for us,” said Wilburn, “We’re getting a better picture of what’s going on in our city. The avenues to getting that information was limited because not everyone likes to pick up the phone to request something or they’d want to send in a request but they’d be away from a computer.” On the citizen-facing side, SeeClickFix affords citizens to take a picture with a mobile device, utilize geolocation capability, and send the request on-command. “Pictures allow us to get more information, better information more quickly,” said Wilburn, “I really feel like pictures are time savers for us. Now we can see the issue before going out and looking at it. Then we can take the appropriate materials out with us to get the job done.” This helps the City save additional costs.

On the government-facing side, SeeClickFix is a dynamic CRM system that allows government officials across departments to automate where these requests are sent and communicate back to the citizen reporter. To that end, it can be a powerfully productive internal tool as well. Wilburn articulated how the City of Ann Arbor wanted to utilize this functionality: “We wanted SeeClickFix to not only be an external presence but have it used by our internal staff for the requests for work that we just do in-house,” he said,”We use CityWorks to track those requests as well — such as changing light bulbs or fixing bathrooms when they are not working.”

“From a communications perspective,” said Kellar, “SeeClickFix has been wonderful. It allows residents to easily contact us about issues and follow progress on addressing it. So far, the community has embraced it and we have gotten quite a bit of praise.”
To be sure, although the City of Ann Arbor’s needs were a good match with what the SeeClickFix provides, there were certainly some bumps along the way. “There was a lot more tinkering to get the integration configured correctly from both sides,” said Wilburn, “We felt that as we went through it it was going to be a little easier and less customization.” In addition, the beginning of the use of SeeClickFix was a bit jarring. “It’s entirely new and was a culture shock especially for field folks,” said Kellar, ”It has a direct communication with residents that they did not have before. It takes getting used to — especially the transparency and honesty it requires.”

Both issues, however, are easing into resolution. “Ultimately, we all came to the right place and the tinkering that needed to happen got done,” said Wilburn, “We got things where they needed to be.” Regarding the transparency culture shock, Kellar likes to remind staff about the way things used to be: “Before, issues used to just disappear into the ether. If you reported a pothole, no one ever told you it was fixed — you’d report it into a black hole. Now we’re reporting back to folks. I’m more interested in sounding human that crossing all our T’s and dotting I’s.”

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