Striking a balance for public agency service request management

Dick Riemenschneider, Public Works Superintendent, City of Woodbury, Minnesota
Mike Daniel, President, GovPartner, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Public works departments throughout the country have faced the same dilemma for years: multiple concerned citizens call the City to report graffiti on Main Street, the tree limb blocking a street sign on Broadway or a water leak on First Avenue.

Some contact the City Administrator or Mayor's office directly. Some dial the main number and leave a message or are routed to a public works employee. A few stop by the front desk and some send an e-mail. All want to know what will be done to fix the problem and some will call back for a status update.

Public works managers and staff are accustomed to work-order systems for assigning and tracking their work. But before the work order can be created, the scribbled sticky note or voicemail must be deciphered.

Often the citizen must be tracked down for more details, due to lack of information on the original request. Or worse, the Mayor's office learns that not only has the graffiti not been removed, but the work crew is unaware of the request that was supposed to be passed along.

Because requests for service are received through many different means of communication, it is becoming a standard for local governments to implement CRM (Citizen Request Management) systems to create a central database of all requests. Such systems allow for detailed information to be prompted on issue-specific forms and tracking of request status.

Many public agencies use CRM solutions as their sole software for tracking their work. Others receive all requests through the central CRM system and enter select work into a separate system tracking department-specific timesheets and assets.

The City of Woodbury, Minnesota (pop. 57,000) is taking an approach that embraces multiple needs, while striking a balance for public works via integration of state-of-the-art city-wide CRM to a traditional work-order solution.

As one of Minnesota's fastest-growing cities, Woodbury's rapid development has been managed via carefully-crafted plans by elected officials, citizen advisory boards, planning professionals and City staff. The City has taken a similar approach of strategic planning and teamwork to achieve a successful request management process.

For years, Woodbury officials searched for a solution to track service requests from citizens. The current process was based primarily on voicemails and paper moving among departments. This time-intensive effort still resulted in some requests falling through the cracks.

Public works crews had utilized a home-grown Access(tm) database to enter timesheets for years as data interns from the local colleges assisted with development of the database. However, because different "programmers" were modifying the Access database, without documentation, the data integrity was compromised and reports became unreliable. With performance measures as a strong driver for public works activity, the department wanted to implement a new solution. With a new City Administrator desiring a city-wide request management solution, the opportunity to meet two goals was realized.

The City established a task force of public works employees and representatives from other departments that would also use the CRM software. With confidence that its unique needs would be met at the same time that a city-wide solution would be implemented, public works officials embraced the larger scope of the effort and joined all departments in providing input for development of the project RFP.

Task force members sought an end-to-end solution that would address all communication points from receipt of the initial request, to auto-assignment of each request to the appropriate department, and a process for updating the status of a request without having public works employees update data in two systems.

While the City Administrator had implemented a paper-based request management process in a past municipality, there was no question that the Woodbury CRM solution must consist of advanced web technology with online access for the community.

A survey demonstrated that more than 90% of Woodbury residents had Internet access at home and/or work, driving the need for a solution with online access for the public. Also, the City understood the cost-benefit of citizens submitting requests online. This, along with securely checking status on the City website, would provide a huge time saving versus having staff manually enter data and provide updates.

The City's ultimate selection in May 2006 was the RequestPartner CRM system, integrated with the CarteGraph WORKdirector system. The GovPartner CRM solution offered advanced web functionality and provided ease of use and flexibility for all departments.

Additionally, Frequently Asked Questions in the CRM system are linked to each request form for more detailed information about services, which helps to manage public expectations of resolution for their issue. The CarteGraph system offered traditional work order, timesheet and asset management specific to public works.

With RequestPartner implemented in June 2006 and already in use by more than 60 City employees, the next step is integration to the work-order solution. Given advances in technology, the interface between two company software systems can be accomplished via a more nimble form of integration called "web services."

And as Woodbury's IT Director, Robert James, explains, "Not only are technology advancements an important factor, but the willingness of two software companies to work so closely together and operate an open business philosophy for the benefit of the municipal client is what really makes the difference."

James is clear that there is some risk for a city to manage more than one company during this type of implementation, and that is why it was important for the City to select established firms with strong commitment to successful municipal projects.

With years of experience entering data into a timesheet system, the public works team quickly adopted the new CRM tool.

With the RequestPartner system created and supported by GovPartner (originally created by a national municipal services firm), and the Woodbury implementation led by HRG Tech Group (the technology affiliate of the 90+ year-old engineering firm, Howard R. Green Company), the experience and commitment to the municipal sector on is clear.

Already the majority of requests processed through the city-wide CRM system are for public works (as high as 90% of requests in the first two weeks that RequestPartner was used). A major differentiator is the distinction between a request for service and an actual work instance to deliver the service.

Also key was the decision for public works staff to enter work orders straight into the work-order system if the work originated internally, and to link external requests for service into the work-order system. Because multiple requests can be linked to one work order, staff needs to only mark the one work order "complete" as they also track time and assets and the integrated system will automatically update each related service request.

So, finally the concerned citizens receive an updated status for a request for service, without additional effort from the Public Works Department so busy conducting the work to fulfill the request. It is a solid balance of efficiency and high-touch customer service made possible by a dedicated public agency and private sector's application of advanced technology.

Dick Riemenschneider can be reached at (651) 714-3720 or publicworks@ci.woodbury.mn.us; Mike Daniel can be reached at (888) 256-5777 or mdaniel@govpartner.com.