Local governments with 311-CRM systems and other types of centralized customer service systems are taking on new challenges as a result of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  Originally designed to take the call load off 911 systems -- an urgent need now and then -- 311 systems are stepping up their efforts to answer questions and respond to other needs expressed by their residents.   

  • In Broward County, Florida, 311 service agents are doing initial screenings with callers by asking a series of yes/no questions to determine where callers should be directed and answering numerous questions on what defines essential vs. non-essential businesses. They have set up a dedicated phone line and website for COVID-19 questions and extended their operating hours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m..
  • Newport News, Virginia, provides updates several times a day to keep residents informed about all delays, closings, and changes in procedures. For example, the city hosts Facebook Live events featuring such key personnel as the mayor, city manager, fire chief, and acting director of the Peninsula Health District to provide updates and answer residents’ questions in real time. 
  • Several local governments, such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have transitioned their service agents to workstations in their homes. 
  • Evanston, Illinois, transitioned its 311 system to a new remote call center in order to handle increased COVID-19 call volumes and provide a safe working environment for staff.  The new center was established in just six days, using the existing 311 phone system.
  • Jacksonville, Florida, uses multiple communication channels to communicate with their citizens.  Most recently, the city modified one of those channels -- its central Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system -- with new announcements to help answer residents’ questions prior to reaching a customer service representative and updated the city’s customer portals with information.
  • In Knoxville, Tennessee, they have introduced a new ChatBot to help inform the public, especially now that their offices are closed. The automated bot answers the most often asked questions, like on the Census and Coronavirus, and guides residents to resources.

Use the following tips from ICMA and the Association of Government Contact Center Professions (AGCCP) to help your 311 call center staff navigate its response to COVID-19:

1. Help staff prepare. 

During this response, it is likely that 311 staff will be asked to work longer hours and possibly even to remain at the center overnight. Keeping up the strength and morale of the representatives is crucial in this marathon-response to COVID-19. Routine training and review of plans helps prepare them, as does offering support with preparing their families when they are away from home for extended periods. Finally, have a quiet room where staff can go and take a break when needed.  If possible, have food catered and provide relief through breaks and time to communicate with their families.

2. Additional resources for call taking. 

Particularly for extended events such as the response to COVID-19, have a plan to supplement staff. Coordinate with other departments not directly involved in recovery to assist in the call-taking and information dissemination functions. Can library or recreational staff be trained to assist in relieving call center staff, especially when their facilities are closed? Is there a volunteer organization(s) that can provide resources?

3. Conduct a SWOT analysis. 

Meet with the key departments and groups involved to find out what has worked well and what hasn't so far. Use this information to improve operations, communications, and quality of information dispensed. This will help 311 centers improve operations as staff continue to respond to COVID-19 —actively putting new processes in place if needed and updating information in the knowledgebase related to handling this event like identifying temporary health care locations, documenting reported costs for FEMA reimbursement, and tracking offers from volunteers. Likewise, conduct a debriefing session with call center staff to elicit their feedback on how the operation is going. Feedback from staff can provide insight on what they see as strengths and weaknesses in their own performance.

4. Work closely with the emergency operations center (EOC). 

Accurate and timely information is critical before, during, and post-emergency. The call center needs to be included and have a specific role in the overall emergency operation plan for the community. The call center is essential for public information and needs to be able to operate during this time. Check your generators, back-up systems, and continuity of operation plan for your call center.

5. Rely on your working relationships. 

From a 311 perspective, you might have established relationships with other cities or local counties that have contact or 311 centers, 911 police and fire call centers, or 211-type call centers that offer social services and referrals. Review service agreements or memorandums of understanding in place and see where you and your partner agencies can support each other.

6. Review and update information in the knowledgebase. 

Be sure to have current information in the knowledgebase regarding the types of questions that are coming up now in relation to COVID-19. Post-event, the needs of the public change from what is going on—where am I allowed to go under shelter in place, is my business essential or non-essential, how can I get food to a person in need—to other less urgent but equally important requests such as how to handle insurance claims, or request financial assistance. Be sure to recap what comes up in this area and have answers to those types of questions on hand. Also be sure to update any phone number or contact lists periodically—numbers for agencies or services most requested, such as for public health services. Also, keep hard copies of your contact lists and other important information in case computers go down or 311 staff need to relocate.

7. Coordinate post-event information. 

Information sharing between internal departments, EOC, and outside agencies is critical. Periodic or even daily briefings to update respective agencies are essential so call center staff have accurate information as circumstances change.

Have an example or question on 311 systems response to COVID-19? Share with or ask a fellow local government manager on ICMA Connect

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

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