Why Cities Should Let Residents Text 311

In the past, business SMS focused on marketing programs and simple notifications. That’s changing. There is now significant consumer demand to text a business for customer support. This extends to the public sector–large cities are starting to provide text messaging services to their residents for 311 service. This is partially in response to consumer demand for texting for support: over 64% of Americans would rather text than call for help.

Nearly 300 cities across the nation have a 311 call system in place that citizens can contact, but only a handful of cities—New York City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Boston—have these numbers text-enabled. It costs cities an average of $3.40 to answer a phone call, whereas answering a text only costs 60 cents (and even less if the message is automated).

By text-enabling their 311 numbers, cities can deflect calls that come into the often understaffed response centers and still interact with citizens. If citizens call into the 311 number, they can channel pivot to text to chat with a city employee. The city employees can respond to multiple incoming texts at once, as opposed to only one call at a time.

Offering the option text 311 doesn’t just benefit cities. 311 numbers are an easy way for citizens to contact their city with questions, concerns, or important updates about their surrounding area. 311 numbers improve the user experience: they’re easier to remember than a short code or toll free number, meaning citizens are more likely to engage with their city. Text-enabling these numbers lets citizens use the same number to text and call, rather than having to remember a brand new number.

Text-enabling 311 numbers benefits citizens as well as wireless carriers. Currently, text-enabled long codes (10-digit numbers) are passed through several aggregators, each of whom charge a service fee. A text-enabled 311 number cuts out the middleman altogether, providing a safe and dependable income stream with a low probability of spam.

There are an incredible amount use cases for text-enabled 311 numbers. In Washington, D.C., citizens can text 311 to report potholes or broken parking meters. In Evanston, Ill., citizens can text a restaurant name to their local 311 number and get its health rating. In Minneapolis, citizens can opt-in to receive 311 snow alerts, and in New York City, citizens can text 311 to pay a parking ticket or report a noisy neighbor.

Providing 311 phone support was a significant improvement in communication between a city and its residents. Adding the ability to text 311 will be just as significant. With other n11 services like 911 starting to support text, a text-enabled 311 number will improve the public infrastructure of any city. Communicating with citizens has never been easier.

To learn more about citizens’ preference for text support, you can download the 2014 Harris Report here.

Photo by Flickr user Garry Knight.

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