Opening the door to civic engagement

“Thank you for calling our customer service line. All our representatives are busy at the moment. Your call is important to us. Please hold why we try to connect you to one of our agents.” Cue a distorted version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Welcome to the Fifth Circle of Hell.

Dante would surely recognize the call center as a modern day equivalent of his vision of the Styx where “the wrathful fight each other on the surface and the sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn into a black sulkiness which can find no joy in God or man or the universe”.

Necessary evils they may be, but call centers do have the devil’s own job to perform. They occupy the place between “us”, the public, and “them”, the administrators/mindless bureaucrats/pettifogging functionaries – depending on your point of view.

It’s a thankless task. And while some perform heroically well, calling a call center is too often a dread experience to be avoided whenever possible.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Developers with a vision of greater transparency in government and a more engaged citizenry are using technology to transform the civic landscape in a slow but steady erosion of established practices.

In the UK, a not-for-profit social enterprise, mySociety has been spearheading the change with a web-based, open-source platform called FixMyStreet.

Launched in 2007 for ratepayers to report issues ranging from potholes in streets, to graffiti, to broken street lights and dog fouling, it’s become the UK’s most widely used fault-reporting website.

It’s based on a technical standard called Open311 and provides a way for computers of ordinary people to report problems to the computers of the people who can fix them.

Its US equivalent, SeeClickFix provides a similar framework for public action but for the service to really take off it needs the buy-in of local authorities and getting that is a problem.

SeeClickFix for Seattle is a good example. More than 400 issues going back to 2011 have been logged by locals and there hasn’t been a single official response on the site to any of them:

 “Street drain grate missing at street end. South side of street partially clogged with debris.”

“This van has been parked in the same parking spot all year and has not moved. It is filled with junk and garbage, not sure if someone is living in it or not.”

There are numerous reasons why town halls don’t engage: It can be viewed as yet another feedback channel to support, an unwarranted cost, an extra IT overhead and maybe even a little bit too open for comfort.

According to Myfanwy Nixon, mySociety’s communications officer, it most frequently takes the form in the UK of councils replying to users saying they must use the council’s own reporting system.

“The most common reason is that their systems can’t accept FixMyStreet reports – the fields don’t match up.”

“Obviously, we’re big fans of people being able to make reports from whichever platform they wish, be it the council’s website, FixMyStreet, Facebook, Twitter, text… and we’ll always work with any council to find a solution if we can. We’re advocates of Open311 to the extent that we’ll offer free integration if the council’s system is configured correctly.”

US transparency advocate Philip Ashlock said: “Cost is definitely a major factor.

“I think there’s also a cultural hurdle around the transparency of the approach with things like Open311 in terms of forcing a government to confront demand and be honest about how well it can meet that.”

SeeClickFix does provide a list of its top performers but big cities like Chicago and New York stick with 311 phone calls – a single number, non-emergency, government helpline – for the bulk of their interactions.

The number is easy to remember, citizens don’t have to root through phone directories and tiers of government to know who to call and it suits people who aren’t adept or comfortable with computers.

Last year Chicago’s 311 unit received 3.9m inquiries across the full range of issues that arise in a modern metropolis – and in multiple languages too.

For the most part is works well; Chicago is transparent about performance in its engagement with the public. You can go online and see metrics about average wait times for calls to be answered, call abandonment rates, call volumes and agent efficiency statistics.

The early adoption of 311 call centers suggests why the US might be lagging behind the UK in harnessing Open311 web technology.

According to Ashlock: “The big difference between the UK and the US is that the UK doesn’t have the history of 311 or cities that provided some of that kind of interaction on their own, so FixMyStreet was serving a need and providing interactions that governments really weren’t doing at all on their own.

“In the US there were already a number of major cities that had a 311 call center to handle issues like this and let them be tracked to resolution, but apps like SeeClickFix worked to make those interactions much more public and social and generally easier to use.”

Making interactions public and social is a key part of Open311’s appeal as mySociety developer Dave Whiteland states: “We didn’t originally build FixMyStreet because we wanted to get potholes fixed.

“We built it because we wanted nervous, politically inexperienced people to know what it felt like to ask the government to do something, and to be successful at that.

“We wanted to give people the buzz of feeling like they have a bit of power in this world, even if the most tiny amount.

“If the government fixes a problem and the citizen doesn’t find out it’s a double loss. The citizen becomes disillusioned and weakened, and the government doesn’t get the credit it is due. Everyone loses.”

Seattle town hall has its own mobile app for citizens to report issues, Find It, Fix It, and it lacks both the public and social elements of Open311. It’s a closed loop interaction between the individual and the city and it’s had some testy reviews in the Apple store:

“Even when it did work the city closed the case without taking care of the illegal dumping or communicating with me on the status of my request.”

“City called the case closed without removing the dirty sofa illegally dumped on my side walk! I don’t think they look at those requests. Useless apps. Crashed and now I can’t even open it…”

“I reported a streetlight that was lit during the day. The report sat there for months before it expired with no response. What’s the point of this app if nobody responds to reports?”

Get it right and the joined up experience works “incredibly well” according to Chris Palmer at the London Borough of Barnet: “Rather than putting you through a ‘customer service process’, FixMyStreet gives you a clear idea of what’s happening, allows you to contact your council from standing in the middle of the street with your phone, and gets you a quick response.”

mySociety’s Myfanwy Nixon said one of the organization’s main aims was to serve people who might never have contacted their council about the things that bothered them in their own community.

“The metric we set most store by is the percentage of people who answer our follow-up site survey to say that this is the first time they have reported something to the council. This is consistently over 50% and currently runs at 53.5% over all time.”

She said there was a general understanding in UK councils now, of the benefits of channel shifting and increased transparency.

“We tend to promote FMS in terms of its extreme usability…(and) as a proven means to reduce reports made by phone, it saves the council money that would otherwise be spent on staffing the phone lines.”

She added: “The benefits of transparency go both ways: councils typically do a lot of hidden, unappreciated work which FMS can help highlight. Equally, councils can dispel misconceptions in public – by explaining their actions online, they are reaching many people rather than the single person they can talk to on the phone or by email.

Nixon said there was also a general understanding of the low levels of council funding in the UK at the moment. Her own council was canvassing opinions from residents on how to prioritize spending for the coming year in the face of austerity measures from central government.

“So, perhaps at the moment, funding gaps are not something that councils feel they have to hide.”

Community-based effort to get things done has found favor in Zurich, one of the cleanest and most efficient cities in the world, and the open source software that underpins it has also been used for other crowdsourced efforts such as reporting empty homes and tackling anti-social behavior.

The latest initiative to come from mySociety is Collideoscope, a tool for reporting and gathering data on cycle accidents in London which will be used to provide insights into accident prevention.

It’s another example of the way data is being aggregated and shared and illustrates how crowdsourcing allied to greater transparency can deliver small pockets of feedback to achieve potentially big results.

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