Burning Questions? Call 3-1-1 in Akron, Ohio — Get Answers and Great Service

Opened in 2004, the City of Akron’s 311 Call Center serves as the initial point of contact for non-emergency issues and citizen concerns. If you have a burning building, dial 911! If you have a burning question, just dial 311. Because providing great service is such a high priority for city administration, two shifts of call takers are available to answer the phone until 7:00 p.m. every weekday and half a day on Saturday. These 311 call takers continue Akron’s long tradition of customer-focused government by handling any and all requests, from stray dogs to potholes, averaging 60–70,000 calls per year. The 311 call center is used in the day-to-day operations of the Nuisance Compliance Division in the Department of Neighborhood Assistance (DNA)—a busy hub for citizen contact.

Akron provides many services at no cost to its citizens. They will plow driveways if a customer is on a medical waiver. Those who report lost or broken trash carts will get a replacement. The City takes pride in giving better customer service, even taking care of stray dogs for free. John Valle, the director of neighborhood assistance, noted that “Cityworks has given the department the ability to streamline and automate their procedures for handling customer service issues and nuisance complaints on high grass and weeds, trash, or housing issues and continue our customer-focused tradition.”

Given the volume of calls received and the high priority given to the call center operations, it was with apprehension and nervousness that the City embarked on a project to replace the aging call center software. The existing system had begun failing, and any replacement would have to be made quickly, with no downtime.

When Darren Rozenek, GIS coordinator, discussed a replacement for the 311 call center with city administration, the servers running 311 were no longer under maintenance; the system had crashed and was down for three days. If they did not make a decision and implement quickly, they may not have recovered the next time the system failed.

The City turned to Cityworks for a software package that could not only handle their 311 call center needs, but give them a platform to build into a true enterprise-wide asset management system. According to Rozenek, “our overall goal was to replace the existing system with a CMMS (Cityworks) that could support the future needs for the entire service department.”

The implementation partner, POWER Engineers, was chosen for their proven track record in their team-driven, interactive approach to project deployments. Implementation would include migration, integration for customer data, and a full configuration with service requests for all departments, along with work orders and PLL cases for handling of nuisance compliance violations.

Discovery Phase Overcomes “Change-itis”
The City and POWER kicked off the project in October 2014 with an initial six-week discovery phase, documenting business processes, collecting migration and integration requirements, and developing an overall project implementation plan. Designed to overcome a “bit of change-itis,” the interactive discovery process involved call takers, the call center manager, and public works representatives from each business area affected by the replacement system.

POWER’s project manager, Lee Halbrook, took the stance to get everyone involved at the start—resulting in better buy-in. The objective was “to translate their needs into the software” so it functioned as desired, rather than as it did before.

“Everybody felt a little leery about changing the application they had used for 10 years. Although it didn’t function perfectly, they had become accustomed to it and learned to deal with the quirks,” recalled Rozenek. “The City of Akron has one of the most active call centers we’ve been involved with, tracking an average of 5,000 calls per month. With this type of active participation, the City required an easy-to-use solution that could handle the high volume and give them the flexibility and capacity to expand their Cityworks solution across the entire enterprise,” Halbrook said.

The implementation team approached the change with an understanding that work would get done in a new way—they were not just replacing a system, but learning a new way to work. For example, rather than taking 25 minutes to run a query in the old system, Cityworks would provide each user an inbox that could automatically provide the needed information.

The result of this discovery phase was an implementation plan that clearly identified the goals, objectives, timeline, and breadth of the initial implementation.

Interactive Configuration and Testing Builds Buy-in
A key requirement of the implementation plan was that the system replacement needed to occur quickly and with little or no system interruption. In order to accomplish this, the POWER team utilized interactive configuration sessions with small groups of users from each work area. During these sessions, the configuration team would present the configured Cityworks system to end users and modify the system on-the-fly to meet their needs. This approach provided immediate visual feedback to the core team on how Cityworks would be used to get the same results as the existing system. It also greatly reduced the configuration time that would have normally been needed to prepare and approve configuration documentation.

Leaning on the implementation team early in the design phase and throughout the testing and deployment phases built greater buy-in and accountability for getting good data into the system. The implementation team conducted several rounds of iterative acceptance testing to refine the configuration and help staff become familiar with the software. While they went into the implementation phase with the knowledge that some things may still have needed to be refined, they had seen the flexibility of the software and the ease with which changes could be made. Users had eagerly bought in to the new software due to their ability to design, test, and then refine the application.

Go-live with No Downtime
The timing for the project kickoff in November overlapped with staff downtime during the holidays in December, and then the busiest snow and ice season for public works in January. Despite these scheduling interruptions, the City deployed the solution in a six-month time frame, going live in April 2015 with no system downtime. The final solution deployed city-wide service request functionality to cover the needs of streets, sanitation, parks, engineering, water, sewer, zoning, building maintenance, and neighborhood assistance departments. Work order and PLL functionality was also deployed to support the nuisance compliance officers’ end-to-end business processes. Deployment began with a system shutdown on Friday, followed by a migration of seven years’ worth of back log data (700,000 service requests) over the weekend. All records were validated, and each address was geocoded prior to migration. Staff began using the system on Monday morning with 48 service request templates—from broken trash carts to high weeds and grass—in the system when it was turned on. By the end of the first week, the system was running smoothly and users had collected 1,200 service requests. The total number of service requests entered between April and October of the first year was 34,585, with an average of 5,764 service requests entered per month. The total number of cases entered during this same period was 6,031, with an average of 1,005 cases entered per month.

Savings in Cost, Time, and Effort
There is now a single system for tracking and managing the City’s call center service requests and tracking nuisance compliance cases. The configuration of the services requests, work orders, and Cityworks PLL cases was specifically designed to support code enforcement officers dealing with complaints of high grass and weeds, trash, right-of-way obstructions, graffiti, and junk vehicles. The seamless integration between these different work activities allows Akron to use a single system to track the entire violation from the initial investigation to resolution.

The new system also gives the City a single location to view service requests, work orders, and cases in GIS. The previous system had no tie to the GIS, making it difficult to view incident and work activity locations. The geo-centric Cityworks application is built on top of Akron’s existing geodatabase and has helped call takers automatically assign aldermanic districts, trash cycles, and neighborhood codes to each activity. Not only is that information directly linked to an address, it also allows users to see the location on the map. This direct link to the GIS also provides extra protection against work duplication—allowing call takers to validate calls that are fulfilled or still active.

Expanding across the City
As the implementation expands across the city, the Public Works Department is migrating from their existing work order management system to Cityworks. Later this summer, DNA will deploy a mobile solution for its nuisance compliance inspectors to track all work directly in the field. Integration between Cityworks and PeopleSoft will also support employee data maintenance, along with the deployment of POWER’s service request website for citizen-reported issues.

A smooth running Cityworks system is giving citizens and customers a first-hand connection to the City’s services. By taking Cityworks to the streets and to the web, it enables the City to follow through on its customer-focused commitments, saving the citizens’ time and money. Keep up on the next steps at http://www.akronohio.gov/.

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