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Mobile customer service gives citizens a voice with government

Philly 311, a new mobile customer service app for the city of Philadelphia, helps citizens report neighborhood incidents and engage more deeply with city government.

When social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling devised their broken windows theory during the 1980s, they couldn't have imagined smartphones as tools to keep neighborhoods safe and clean. But for the city of Philadelphia, a new online initiative known as Philly 311 turns mobile devices into frontline tools for citizens to report problems and engage with local government.

Until just a few months ago, when Philadelphia residents wanted to report a graffiti-riddled building, they would have to call the city's customer contact center. Some residents toted around hefty physical binders to track issues. But today, they can use mobile phones to report incidents and track them online without having to make a call or stop by the contact center.

With Philly 311, which launched in December 2014, residents can take photos of wayward trash littering a street, "geolocate" the incident with a mobile phone, and then log it automatically in the city's Salesforce 1 CRM system. Instead of having to manually re-reroute incidents to the correct department if a resident fills out an online form incorrectly, the CRM system uses business intelligence to redirect issues to the right department. Citizens can also use self-service options to track issues digitally, from the time of reporting to their resolution.

"We had manual processes where the department would get the email, manually review it, manually send it out. That wasn't efficient," said Rosetta Lue, chief customer service officer for the city.

The city also wanted to make interacting with government resident-centric, not government-dictated. "Customers' needs weren't being met through traditional options," Lue said. "We needed a platform that could help us do business with customers 24/7 whether we were open or not and based on whatever [communication] channel customers wanted," Lue said.

Bridging digital, cultural divides

'Customers' needs weren't being met through traditional options.'
Rosetta Luechief customer service officer, city of Philadelphia

With Philly 311, the city is more able to address important trends in resident communication:

  • The "digital divide," in which many residents don't have a PC but the majority have smartphones.
  • Residents' increasing use of communication channels other than traditional phone calls, such as smartphones and social media.

"We could have remained a traditional government and said, 'Here's how you're going to deal with us. We know you have issues when we're closed, but too bad. Wait till we're open.' Or we could say, 'We can still serve you by [having you go] online.'"

With initiatives like Philly 311, the city has experienced changes in resident interaction with government. Between 2013 and 2014, for example, mobile phone use to report incidents to the city's contact center exploded, with communication increasing more than 300%. Walk-in communication with the contact center decreased by 9%, by contrast, and email communications by 1%. Mobile reporting of incidents can thus promote some contact center efficiencies, in which incidents are automatically reported by phone and routed to the appropriate department. Lue said that the city has made the shift to accommodate residents' need for more effective and scalable multichannel options.

Philly 311 mobile app
Figure 1: A Philadelphia resident uses the Philly 311 mobile app to report graffiti needing attention.

The city also wants to use its platform to encourage citizen engagement, even for non-English speakers. According to Lue, English isn't the primary language for 21% of residents, but Philly 311 enables them to communicate in 17 dialects, including Mandarin and Spanish, and receive responses from the city in that language.

Lue ultimately wants to use Salesforce's Community Cloud to fuel civic engagement among residents. With the Community Cloud, the city can create resident forums for like-minded people to address issues, such as alley cleanups, and mobilize for action.

"If I found other people available to do neighborhood cleanups with me … maybe they have subject matter knowledge to know what permits are needed and can help find solutions to these neighborhood problems," Lue said. "I see it as a move toward sustainability versus 'Tell me your problem, we'll come and fix it.' How can we give people the tools to solve problems?"

Ultimately, Lue said, the initiative is about engaging citizens and restoring public trust in government.

"If we're going to say, 'Call us, contact us,' we need to be able to deliver on those promises."

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I really enjoyed being interviewed by Lauren. She did a fantastic job covering the City of Philadelphia's customer engagement initiative. Thanks!
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Thanks, Rosetta. The city is doing some novel things in terms of engaging citizens and enabling them to use mobile technology to put an end to graffiti, wayward trash and other "broken windows" in their neighborhoods. We look forward to talking more with Rosetta about her philosophy and experience. It was a really eye-opening, fun interview for me too!
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Using mobile application has built up more efficient relationship with the city’s customer call center that allows even non-English speakers to communicate with the center in over 17 dialects. This is an example that shows that responses on different governmental agendas will soon take shape in mobile applications as part of addressing city pertinent issues such as emergencies, cleanups or other mobilizations to the public. It can be used when the user is in danger.
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While indeed Philly 331 has bridged civic governance, it calls for government departments to revisit their business intelligence tools so as to accurately analyze information.
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If you're in government, do you see mobile apps and social as the future of civic engagement?
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I’m not in government, but I think mobile apps and social networking have to play some role in the future of civic engagement. Businesses know this, and monitor social websites to see what their customers are saying about them and their products. Often, if my wife has an issue, or is getting nowhere with a customer service representative, she will post something on the business’s Facebook page and get a very rapid response. They also know that they are missing many opportunities to increase their customer interaction or revenue stream if they don’t offer a mobile application. Civic engagement is really not that much different and, as people become more accustomed to interacting with a business through their mobile apps, they will expect that same availability for civic engagement.
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I'm not into government job but all sectors are bound to embrace new technological changes in order to function better and remain significant. There are lot many ways it can facilitate the operations and helps remove the process related clutter. Digitization and social media presence has been proven tool in general elections of India in 2014.
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One of the things I would worry about here is the temptation to move to a completely digital format for these kinds of activities. It's important to make sure the services remain available to people without mobile devices as well.
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