When citizens of Pasadena, California, spot a problem in their community, whether it is a busted streetlight or an abandoned car, they can pull out their smartphones and immediately report it to the appropriate city agency. They can take a photo of the problem and file a report that includes GPS coordinates, so agency workers know exactly where it is. Pasadena rolled out the mobile app in April 2012, and now "it accounts for anywhere from half to two-thirds of the 600 service requests we receive a month," reports Pasadena IT project manager John Reimers.
"The main benefit of having the mobile app is that people can report something immediately," Reimers continues. "They don’t have to try to remember what they saw and where until they get home. And it tells us specifically, on a map, where that streetlight is." That lets the city dispatch workers efficiently and track the resolution of the problem. The reporting citizen also can use the app to find out which of their issues are still open and which have been resolved. Even if a citizen files a report anonymously—which the app does permit—the city can still respond with an SMS text message. (Even so, "people have a general suspicion that we know who they are," says Reimers, which keeps false alarms to a minimum.)
The app is just one aspect of Pasadena’s reporting and tracking system, however—just "the tip of the iceberg," in the words of Kendall Smith, president of Government Outreach, the app’s developer. Government Outreach offers what it calls "citizen relationship management" (CRM) software (other companies use the term "constituent management software") for cities to use to manage service requests, automatically answer residents’ questions, take surveys, and more. The software is analogous to the customer relationship management systems that large companies have adopted to keep track of inquiries, follow-ups, sales calls, and other interactions with customers. The mobile app is one way in which citizens can access the software; others include a Web portal, email subscriptions, and an interactive phone system.
According to Dave Richmond, president of Comcate, another company offering government CRM solutions, the channels for citizen interaction have evolved. "Ten years ago, it was the Web," he says; then it moved to integration with phone systems, and the latest development is mobile apps. Richmond sees mobile apps becoming more and more common, with a seamless integration between Web and phone.
These systems not only give citizens a way to communicate with their city governments, but they also give government agencies the tools they need to manage the communication—in Richmond’s words, they "facilitate interactions between public agencies and constituents." For example, Government Outreach offers a module for managing code enforcement issues, from assigning cases to staff to generating warning letters to violators. The company also offers a work order management module for graffiti abatement that generates a map of the locations of specific "tags," which can help police track gang activity. The benefits aren’t all on the constituents’ side: city workers can have mobile access as well, so they can use their phones to update a job’s status from the field.
Cities across the country are getting on board with CRM software like this, though "we’re still in the earlier stages" of adoption, says Richmond. "Over the last 10 years, we’ve done a fair amount of missionary work. There’s still lots of room for agencies to embrace and adopt the CRM goal." Nevertheless, Smith reports that Government Outreach has more than 200 installations nationwide, "55 or 60 of them in California," with other concentrations in Texas, Colorado, and Florida. His company’s largest client is Riverside County, CA, population two million, which is using the code enforcement module. The smallest: the city of Red Oak, TX, population 10,000.
For the mobile component, cities can offer Government Outreach’s generic app or opt for a branded version. The generic app is called GORequest, and if the user is in a city that uses the Government Outreach service, the app is smart enough to display the city’s logo. Outside participating cities, users can still use the app to file a report, and Government Outreach staff will try to forward it to the proper city or agency.
Pasadena opted for the branded version of the mobile app, "because we’re vain," according to Reimers. He proceeds to tick off several examples of what makes Pasadena "a world-class city," including the annual Tournament of Roses parade and the Rose Bowl, the California Institute of Technology, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Norton Simon Museum of Art.
Reimers is equally enthusiastic about Pasadena’s CRM system, using the word "cool" a lot when discussing its features. So far, Pasadena has implemented the Web and mobile components of its Government Outreach system, which the city calls its Citizen Service Center. (It rolled the mobile and Web components out first for financial reasons, says Reimers; the 311 call center will be added in July.)
To illustrate the improvements the system has brought, Reimers points to the city’s most recent Service Center quarterly activity report. The Citizen Service Center had 1,581 registered users at the end of March 2013, up 25 percent from the previous quarter. It fielded 1,175 service requests in the first quarter of this year, a 165-percent increase over the same period in 2012. Of those 1,175 cases, 64 percent came in via the mobile apps (including iPads).
Yet Reimers is even more proud of the way the system enables the city to handle the requests. For example, the report shows that the FAQ about parking issues was viewed 70 times—"that’s 70 telephone calls we didn’t have to field," he says. His constituents like the results: in a survey, nearly 90 percent gave a "superior" rating to response time, employee effectiveness and courtesy, and how well their expectations were met, while less than 5 percent reported walking away disappointed.
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Silicon Valley. He has written for over 60 major publications.