By Danny Vivenzio, Global Public Relations at Cisco
That’s how many calls the 311 Call and Resolution Center in Buffalo, New York would answer on any given day before the pandemic.
That’s how many calls that same call center fielded on day one of New York State’s stay at home order in March of 2020.
That’s how many hours the City of Buffalo had to increase their Webex by Cisco call center capacity tenfold remotely.
The 311 Call and Resolution Center, operated by Buffalo’s Division of Citizen services is a helpline that provides access to city services and information. Traditionally, a dozen call center agents would answer questions and ask for help about streetlights, fixing potholes and more.
But then the stakes changed, leading Buffalo to make immediate changes that are now being recognized by the World Smart City Awards as part of the Smart City Expo World Congress 2022 (SCEWC) in Barcelona, Spain, an international event dedicated to a better future for cities and their citizens. The City of Buffalo has been selected as a finalist for the Governance & Economy Award after 377 proposals from 60 countries were considered.
“Our 311 Call and resolution center is a main part of our bigger picture - the very fabric of what we do - which is connect directly with the residents of Buffalo and make sure their voices are heard,” says Buffalo Mayor, Byron W. Brown. “Our data and insights, as well as another one of our main initiatives, Clean Sweep, where we go into communities and hear from residents door to door, has really solidified for residents that we are committed to seeing growth, and innovation happen in our city.
The New Normal
In March of 2020, Buffalo had its first cases of COVID-19. A work from home order was issued. Two weeks to curb the spread was on. The problem was, Buffalo didn’t have the infrastructure in place to enable remote call-center operations to maintain the 311 Call and Resolution Center. None of the employees had experience working from home. Yet they understood citizens would rely on this trusted resource for help. Agents would need to answer calls remotely, while having secure access to city information and the latest guidance.
Who knew how long the stay-at-home order would last. It was to become the new normal, and the City didn’t take any chances. They immediately phoned in their friends – The University of Buffalo and Cisco.
No stranger to standing up critical infrastructure quickly, the university had the communications solutions needed for remote work and had already scaled their Cisco infrastructure to enable more than 4,000 employees to work remotely. Alliances were formed so the city could replicate these best practices.
Over a weekend, the city, university, and Cisco integrated the university’s Cisco Expressway and Unified Communications manager into the city’s Webex Contact Center via the cloud. This provided the link between phones and the call center application. The 311 number was then connected to the university system, allowing a seamless transition to remote work. Finally, new Cisco phones and headsets were delivered to call-center agents at home and trainings were held to ensure that there was no interruption of 311 service when residents needed a consistent place to call at a time when everything else was changing.
On day-one of mandatory stay-at-home, agents were ready and vital city communications continued uninterrupted. Over the next several months, agents found they were answering as many as ten times as many calls as they were pre-pandemic. Concerns changed from basic city infrastructure to needing information about COVID testing and vaccines.
Now as the pandemic is moving into a new stage, the city is applying these lessons to support a hybrid-work model, relying on in-office staff and remote workers to support the mission of the 311 Call and Resolution Center.
In addition, updated technology and data analytics from 311 now enable other initiatives.
Operation Clean Sweep
Today, the City analyzes data from calls to establish sweep areas. Each area is approximately 150 to 200 houses. Operation Clean Sweep is essentially an extension of the 311-call center, that provides services directly to Buffalo’s residents, also known as the City of Good Neighbors.
The program connects callers with human services providers to remove trash and graffiti, prune trees, repair streetlights, reduce crime, provide social services, and better strengthen the relationship between the City and the people who call it home.
The City of Buffalo’s tale is one of resilience, perseverance, and innovation. When faced with an amazing race, they did what was necessary to continue to take care of its people during the pandemic. Then, as those needs changed again, they used the infrastructure already in place to adapt even further, bringing critical services directly to the community’s front door. Now recognized globally in the category of Governance & Economy by the SCEWC 2022 in Buffalo’s innovation is a model for success around the globe.
“Transforming our 311 Call Center program, and leading the Clean Sweep initiative, helped us transform Buffalo into a smart and connected city, building on our commitment to creating and sustaining a smart, effective government that promotes innovation as a way to help improve the quality of life for our residents, and in our neighborhoods,” says Buffalo Director of Citizen Services and Chief Service Officer Oswaldo Mestre explains. “We are humbled to see our work honored at the world stage as model for other cities.”