In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission agreed to let local governments across the U.S. use the phone number 311 to receive calls about non-emergency incidents. The goal was to keep people from tying up 911 communications lines with calls about potholes, stray dogs and similar issues.

The number also offered a simple alternative to a citizen who otherwise would have to hunt through pages of telephone listings to find the right government office to handle a query or complaint.

Fifteen years later, the 311 concept has taken on a personality of its own. "311 has become the customer service portal for a local government," said Don Stickney, 311 director for Minneapolis, which has operated such a system since 2006.

Governments have pushed 311 well beyond the notion of a telephone call center, adding communications via Web portals, smartphones, social media and other platforms. Many governments also are harvesting data from their systems to help them respond to citizens' needs, and to help them operate more efficiently.

"There are quite a few big-picture thinkers who are talking about how 311/CRM [customer relationship management] systems can be used to improve local government," said Cory Fleming, senior project manger, 311/CRM technical assistance at the Washington-based International City/County Managers Association (ICMA).

There is no central source of data about local governments' customer-service systems in North America, according to Fleming. But by her estimate, the U.S. has approximately 265 such systems and Canada another 15. Of those 280 operations, 245 are run by cities, 28 by counties and seven jointly by cities and counties.

Not all 311 systems actually use that number. In 2011, Stickney's center published a comparative survey of 39 non-emergency call services across the U.S. and Canada. Only 13% of respondents said that 311 is their sole call-in number for non-emergency assistance. Sixty-four percent use both 311 and a seven-digit number, while 23% use a seven-digit number only.

SIDEBAR: 311 by the numbers

The services that governments loosely refer to as "311" take various forms, but each generally relies on two kinds of technology. One is the telecommunications system. The other is the CRM software or similar solution used to capture service requests, route those requests to a work-order system and track the status of those orders. The CRM system also may be used to manage databases that operators use to answer citizens' questions.

Of the two, the telecommunications system sparks less excitement these days. "Call center technologies have been around for many years, and they're fairly mature," said Stickney, whose city uses Siemens telecommunications technology.

Still, the telecommunications system is crucial, said Bill Oates, Boston's chief information officer (CIO). The data it provides helps managers track how much traffic the call center receives, how quickly operators answer calls, whether people are hanging up because they're left on hold for too long and other important service factors.

"It also helps you in terms of your staffing plans. You can look at the peaks and valleys of the call traffic and make sure that you have enough people on the phones," he said.

The CRM half of the equation is not the same software used in corporate call centers, but rather a package that's been optimized for government use, said David Moody, vice president of marketing solutions at KANA, a 311/CRM software vendor based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

For example, CRM solutions for the private sector don't, as a rule, employ geographic data, but that's a standard feature of 311 systems, Moody said. "One of the big things about 311 is it's not just about customers or citizens. It's about location."

According to the Minneapolis survey, the phone is the most popular method of contact for 311 services. E-mail runs a close second.

But governments have added other options as well. In Richardson, Texas, for example, residents can use a collection of links on the city's website to report a variety of issues, such as abandoned shopping carts and improperly dumped trash. Once they've made their reports, they can use the site to track the city's response to their requests.

"We're also developing an iPad and iPhone application that will allow you to take a picture of the incident," said Steve Graves, Richardson's CIO. "It marks the GPS location, sends it into the system and then allows you to track it."

Mobile apps linked to 311 systems are becoming popular; nearly half the respondents to the Minneapolis survey mentioned them as a contact option. Social-media platforms also are gaining ground. For example, San Francisco's 311 customer service center's Facebook page offers an app for submitting service requests.

Meanwhile, Boston already was operating a telephone hot line for citizens in 2009, when it built a new call center with a telecommunications system from Nortel and software from KANA. The city used the new technology to turn the existing service into an integrated citizen-services platform linked tightly to its work-order management system.

Today, besides calling the mayor's 24-hour constituent service by phone, citizens can visit in person or make contact via a Web portal, an online live-chat facility or a smartphone app. They also can reach the center via text message or Twitter.

Besides providing new channels for citizen communications, some local governments are using their 311 systems to gain fresh insights into local problems and their own operations.

"You now have a sense of how many phone calls you're getting, what kind of phone calls you're getting and how quickly the service departments are responding to those requests," Fleming said. Managers can use this data to inform their decisions in areas such as budgeting and performance management.

Some cities also are mining 311 data to improve public safety. Fleming points to Philadelphia, where officials seek patterns in complaints about abandoned cars, loitering and other activities that might signal trouble.

"You're not looking at things by service departments so much as you're taking a look at what's happening in a neighborhood, and whether there are problems that we can pinpoint earlier, before crime trends start to spread," Fleming said.

Among other applications, Minneapolis's Department of Housing Inspections has used 311 data to better match inspectors' routes with the neighborhoods that make the most requests for inspections. That helps the department distribute work more evenly among employees, Stickney said.

Officials in Boston also analyze their 311 system data to reveal new information. "We're sitting down on a biweekly basis with all the service-delivery departments, going through the data from our system, looking for anomalies, looking for opportunities for improvement," Oates said.

Just as no one has compiled complete data on all 311 systems in North America, no one seems to have conducted a scientific survey to gauge how well citizens like these services. But Fleming, who has interviewed many citizens on the subject, said she has never met one who doesn't like 311.

"Most people say it's a godsend for them. There may be other things that they don't like about their local governments, but they always love their 311."