Knoxville and the Innovation Academy - A Year Later

ARTICLE | Jan 31, 2015

Knoxville is a city of approximately 200,000 people in a region of approximately 600,000 in the metropolitan area known as The Innovation Valley. The proximity to the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratories makes Knoxville a prime region for innovation. Knoxville consistently ranks high in various publications for quality of life, business environment, cost of living etc.

The City administration has been looking at ways to modernize and improve the operations of local government and the services provided to reflect a 21st century service model.

When the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Innovation Academy, Knoxville did not hesitate, having been an early adapter to 311, consolidating call center functions and focusing on the quality of customer service, it was a perfect fit. The class team was selected from a cross section of departments and disciplines to reflect the overall culture of the city’s staff. Public Service Operations, Title VI, ADA, Business development, customer service, Communications, and administration were all represented. Also participating were a representative from The University of Tennessee’s MTAS and an intern, second year Master’s Program from the U.T. College of Social Work. We felt utilizing these resources would present advantage as we evaluated possible projects.

As with any program that runs the course of a year, scheduling was a challenge for so many people with so many varied responsibilities, but the administration made very clear that this was a priority and all involved made a commitment to see the program through to its conclusion. Partnering with U.T. MTAS, we had an advantage with meeting space as well as tech for our video class sessions.

The group came away with two projects that are both well underway, an Ambassadorial Program titled “My Knoxville” and a program to help senior citizens learn to use modern tech devices, in particular, tablets.

The City Ambassador Program (My Knoxville) is an organization engagement program that will strengthen the culture of customer service and cultural competency among city employees by increasing knowledge, motivation, and customer service skills.

The program will consist of 12 employees who have worked for the city more than two years.  The first round of employees will be nominated by the department directors. (Looking to select from Service First group) Subsequent Ambassador Nominees will be volunteers or those who are nominated by current Ambassadors.  The employees will participate in a six month program with pre-defined meeting times and parameters.

The program will focus on internal engagement initially in order to strengthen the organizational culture so that an external ambassador program can be added.  (Note: We may be able to accomplish this at the same time through the knowledge base education and customer service training.) 

The following are potential roles and responsibilities for City Ambassadors:

  • Develop and maintain an intranet resource list including department contact list, ambassador list, building maps, etc.
  • Participate in the new employee orientation providing an overview of city departments, providing a tour of City office locations in CCB, review items of the resource list above and participate in a new employee Lunch with an Ambassador
  • Continuous engagement with new employees to encourage ambassador program objectives
  • Participate in the customer service training program and help educate other City staff regarding customer service skills
  • Encourage and Identify opportunities for innovation.

311 Touch, a beneficial value-added technology is the recent introduction/inclusion of Video Communication via Google Hangouts and tablets with regard to customer service in senior centers.  The City of Knoxville 311 office, already accustomed to handling a wide, diverse range of constituents, has expanded further to develop a video conference service for municipal senior centers.  This allows City of Knoxville 311 to offer a few unique features: user-to-user direct video communication and the ability to hold “Town Hall” type meetings in a communal setting, using the Google Hangouts platform.  Senior constituents are understood to be especially active and vocal participants in city government, but they are not necessarily as mobile. As an example, our system lets a City Council meeting be broadcast in a meeting room, using a projector.  A larger number of residents, ones that would otherwise not be included, would then be able to see and participate in city government. 

Seniors, while more engaged, are often overlooked in discussion regarding technology.  While they have generally had difficulties adapting in the past, especially as newer hardware ventures further away from resembling the mechanical typewriters and data-entry tools they have been accustomed to, the advent of tablets has permitted resurgence in usability and interest. Smartphones tend to have displays that are not ideal for long-term viewing, while tablets offer the portability of a smartphone and the display of a laptop without the weight or hassle associated with either.  The touchscreens allow for easy data input, despite any handicaps, making the whole experience senior-friendly. 

This program is being rolled out through a series of “Lunch and Learn” programs at our largest Senior Center, and 311 will be partnering with the Office on Aging to expand the program community wide. As smart Television technology improves and becomes more affordable, we will move to use this platform over a tablet.

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