Local Governments Respond During COVID-19

Local governments put systems in place to operate efficiently during regular times. But when COVID-19 hit, it put a massive strain on them, forcing dramatic adaptation.

The effect of the pandemic on traditional “311” or “citizen information and issue reporting” is a good example of this in action. Citizens need a central method to find out more about municipal programs and to report non-emergency issues. In standard times, operators receive calls about graffiti, potholes, and parking violations – minor problems that crop up from time to time when a large number of people live together.

But when COVID-19 arrived, it threw a spanner in the works, especially in places where the pandemic was wide spread.

When municipalities designed their processes, they modeled usage volumes on those expected for regular daily life. The laws of statistics said that calls would arrive according to a historic distribution and that massive spikes were improbable.

But when the coronavirus outbreak hit, it broke all the rules and led to a host of additional issues related to everything from the lockdown to problems accessing essential services. Consequently, regular practices transformed into chaos, with one problem dovetailing with another. Unintended consequences abound and, in many cities, citizen issue departments have been inundated with calls.

The Need for New Information

Citizen Issue Data

As an example of the scale of the issue, New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Jessica Tisch discussed her experience in a recent interview. She pointed out that people used the 311 services during the pandemic for reasons nobody could have reasonably anticipated ahead of time. Soon things got out of control. Daily call volumes saw an eightfold increase.

The department has been able to respond to the pandemic quickly. With the right tools in place, management was able to immediately see issue volumes rising, and ramp staff numbers to address the new need. They were also able to share information, and spot trends that allowed them to marshal resources more efficiently.

How Data Helps Municipalities Adapt

The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications was fortunate because it had access to data. According to Tisch, early recognition of call patterns allowed the agency to respond in lockstep with demand – just as it has done with other city-wide events in the past. Professionals noted that Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays were the busiest, information that led to doubling staffing levels.

Getting the service right was imperative. The 311 number receives more calls than the city’s 911 department. Millions of New Yorkers rely on it every month to solve problems and get critical information.

The same is true elsewhere. Data from the municipality of Austin, Texas, tells a similar story. Figures reveal that demand for the city’s 311 service grew by more than 11.8 percent in March compared to the previous year, even though more significant growth COVID-19 case numbers was yet to come . However, as in New York, Austin’s 311 centers have quickly ramped up staff to compensate for the increasing demand.

The city authority became very good at directing callers to the right people. Still, it had to make significant changes to its operations. Unlike traditional issues the city was prepared to deal with, people wanted information on whether they could evict tenants, how they should social distance, and whether they should wear face-covering in public. Many people also needed necessary information, such as where to find food.

Smaller Municipalities Have Access to Affordable Tools

The lesson from the experience was clear: 311 services need to be data-driven, and they require trained staff with powerful municipal software to make good decisions. Municipalities that do not have robust data-gathering mechanisms will struggle to maintain responsive citizen request management services, should another wave of the virus hit their communities.

Ultimately, according to Tisch, 311 services are data-dependent. Like customer service centers in the private sector, they need sufficient agility to cope with changes in demand. In the future, municipalities are likely to work more closely to share data. They will also seek to collect more information from citizens too.