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Kara Hartley, 311 Customer Service Representative, for City and County of Denver, Technology Services, works a shift in her basement home office on April 5, 2019, in Parker Colorado. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Perhaps the civic engineers who dreamed up Denver’s 311 information system imagined that callers would be inspired to seize the machinery of municipal services and glorify the concept of participatory democracy.

Turns out, not so much.

Apparently the most burning question of all among Denver’s newly-empowered civilians is this:

What day is the garbage truck coming?

Also a lot of this: Have you seen my dog?

Nearly equaled by: Whose dog is this?

Just about tied by: Can you make that dog stop barking?

And, in rare but memorable circumstances: Can you pick up my dead cat?

Because the 311 office strives to serve, even that last one got the right answer: Yes. They’d rather not advertise it, but in that particular case, a sympathetic 311 agent who knew the elderly caller had nowhere else to turn did indeed go out and pick up the dead cat.

“We want people to say, ‘This can’t possibly be my government, because it’s a good experience’,” said David Edinger, chief information officer for the city.

And the 311 office has largely delivered, handling thousands of citizen queries a day while dropping call wait times from 8 minutes in the busiest parts of 2017 down to 28 seconds year to date. “At 70 seconds in the queue, people start hanging up,” said Sheila Knight-Fields, director of Contact Centers & Customer Experience.

Mind-numbing queues and multiple transfers for basic, rubber-meets-the-road functions of civic governance are now handled 70 percent of the time by a single phone call.

Trash-schedule questions are increasingly handled by a voice-recognition system dubbed “Ava,” without any human contact at all.

The 44 employees of Denver 311 and its web-based companion Pocketgov Denver, the only such integrated system in the state, have added slick technology, such as filling street potholes by letting complainers take a photo and filing or texting a form.

The system knows where they are in the city. Decades after utopian technology forecasters predicted it, Denver 311 and have quietly become the face of government. (While not technically available as an app, mobile users can add the Pocketgov web app to their home screen, creating an icon that launches the mobile site with a similar experience to a native app)

Denver’s pocketgov web app seen on a phone on April 15, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s incredibly convenient from a customer service point of view, but also makes a lot of sense from a government efficiency point of view,” said Andrew Nicklin, futurist-at-large for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Government Excellence. “It does bring a much more effective measurement of the pulse of a place.”

Denver software developer and dedicated cyclist Rob Toftness uses Pocketgov to send right-of-way enforcement tips about cars parked in bike lanes and other violations that threaten his two-wheeled kind. Toftness, who advertises his wish for bike-car equality in his Twitter handle Rob@NoSquish, said enforcers don’t always respond fast enough to catch scofflaws, but the reporting system is much better than frustrating old phone trees.

“Now if only reporting cars and trucks in the bike lanes would teleport them to the dark side of the moon … that would be a feature,” Toftness said, in a message with a wink-emoji.

Chatbots are up next as a Denver innovation, following the lead of other cities. Denver is starting with human-tended chat functions on Pocketgov, but will transition to chatbots as the system learns from citizens.

Residents are using push notifications more and more as well, as they grow accustomed to using their smartphones to control nearly every aspect of their transactional lives. If you’re tired of trying to remember which day is large-item pickup in your alley, or when to avoid street sweeping tickets, you can sign up for text notifications.

City departments huddle regularly with the technology office to review 311 data and improve their operations. Motor Vehicles went from waiting times of an hour and 10 minutes to 18 minutes, in part because 311 teaches people what records to bring and what services can be done at Denver offices. (Hint: Not your driver’s license! That’s the state!)

Downtown’s in-person queues for building permits used to open at 7 a.m. and fill by 7:02 a.m. Now at least 75 percent of those functions are handled online, with 311 agents able to check inspection and permit status for callers.

One of the most useful innovations of the technology office that oversees 311 was also the simplest. A large volume of calls and web queries were about hours — rec center hours, department holidays, traffic court schedules. The 311 leaders have persuaded every city agency to place their hours prominently in the same spot on their home page, wiping out a whole section of calls.

The 311 systems — which cost about $2.5 million annually to operate in Denver —  originally evolved to take the pressure off 911. Emergency dispatchers were overwhelmed across the country by mundane questions from residents who had no idea where to call. Then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley is credited with expanding into the modern idea of 311 in 2001. Dozens of major cities are now on board, but it’s uneven — while New York is the gold standard with 20 million calls a year, San Diego is just joining.

Agent training is exacting. When Denver’s system started with six employees, Knight-Fields said, they tried to cram all subjects into six to eight weeks: Where’s my voting booth? What can I do about that barking dog? How do I find a jail inmate? Did that peacock on my sidewalk escape from the zoo? But it was too much, and agents would go home crying. So now it’s done in “modules,” and stretched out over four to six months. The team takes up to 2,500 calls a day; more and more queries come through Pocketgov, but calls are still 85 percent of contacts.

The same technology that makes it convenient for citizens allows some agents to work from home. When employees couldn’t get downtown in March’s bomb cyclone, 311 was open for business with home-based agents. The day after the storm, calls hit a record with questions about plowing, downed trees and trash schedules.

While picking up the dead cat was not in the training manual, the 311 agents do pride themselves on sticking with the customer until they get what they need. And sometimes what they need is someone who doesn’t hang up.

“We do have regulars,” Knight-Fields said. “We have one lady who walks down the street and calls us and reports everything she sees. For 30 or 40 minutes.”

The most innovative 311 cities are constantly trying to figure out who they have still not reached, said Johns Hopkins’ Nicklin. Undocumented residents, for example, are more afraid than ever to call for city services because of the virulence of recent anti-immigrant sentiment.

“There are groups that are under represented or afraid to call,” Nicklin said. “We’re still struggling with getting a 311 system to represent the full entirety of a constituency’s needs.”

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Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...