We spoke recently with a big organization that is trying to figure out the best approach for possibly setting up a hotline for refugees trying to find asylum in the United States, consequently finding themselves in need of timely legal and tactical guidance.
The hotline is a default solution to an information problem. So while I offered advice on how to think about approaching a hotline build, I also suggested that a hotline may not be the best available solution.
In either case, the thrust of my point was that a hotline is a deceptively complicated solution to set up correctly, and to do it correctly would take a lot of thinking. The technology to build it well exists, but developing a hotline is a process that is utterly dependent on planning, testing, and the implementation of not just a phone, but a series of supporting technical tools designed to help route, deal with dropped calls, and organize incoming activity.
But this is actually quite difficult to execute, because a hotline is a pretty bespoke problem, from a technical standpoint (suprisingly for many, a hotline is a pretty advanced technical build), a planning standpoint (it is necessary to really get to understand the target caller and their needs, restrictions, and manners of hotline use), and a testing standpoint (a hotline needs to be tested and updated before a full launch, because the needs of the caller group can only be predicted so far before testing).
Importantly, a hotline is much more than a dedicated phone number and a staffing plan. In fact, telephone numbers, whether run through a telecom provider or an online communication platform, like WhatsApp, are poorly suited to handle any sort of hotline load that exceeds a handful of calls per day.
Immigration hotlines usually die
Chances are that if you are in the immigration or refugee field you know of an organization that runs a hotline. But, chances are also that the hotline you know of is rarely operational. The best example of this is probably found on the pro bono sheets that immigrants in U.S. detention receive. The sheets often have “hotlines” that can be called for the immigrants to receive pro bono services.
For reasons that only make sense to EOIR and the Department of Homeland Security, those hotlines remain on the sheets even thought they rarely if ever work. The surface reasons the hotline numbers rarely work range from the hotline being shut off by the organization that set it up, to it never really existing, but the underlying reason for the hotlines not working is that they became overwhelmed with calls and are unable to deal with the volume of requests they get in.
Ask any organization in the country that runs one or has attempted to, and you will learn that maintaining a hotline going becomes a burden almost as soon as the number gets out into the general population. Staff try to keep up with the calls after a while, but their ability to either do intake, refer, give information, or whatever else the intent of the hotline is initially, is quickly undermined by relentless, nonstop ringing.
The lesson is simple:
Merely having a dedicated phone number and people to answer it does not begin to approach the challenge of an immigration hotline.
A “Hotline” project is really a CRM management project
A correctly developed hotline will handle calls and questions from a target caller archetype, provide timely information to that caller, and, from the administrators point of view, be manageable with reasonable, and not overwhelming effort, and be able to deal with not just a large number of calls, but spikes of calls during emergencies and busy times of day.
Add this all up and a “hotline” is an iceberg. The visible part – the phone number and voice on the other side of the phone – is just the tip of a much larger effort. If it is done via analog, non-digital means, the bulk of the effort in developing a hotline is creating a workflow, setting up information protocols, having emergency responses ready, preparing scripts, understanding when to refer or escalate, etc. It’s no simple feat. And the app/digital version of this adds up to a customer relationship management (CRM) portal, or a case management system (CMS).
And in immigration the two hotline solutions that exist, RapidResponse (ICE raid hotline) and Detention Lifeline (Detention center hotline), are CRM portals at their heart, with the telephone number and telephone line being just one part of a complex build.
Even though the two above projects are made by the same org, they are custom developed for the very different problems that raids and detention center calls present. In the humanitarian context, with stakes being as high as they are, it really is necessary to think about bespoke solutions like this.
Big takeaway: Hotlines are an investment of time and money
Hotlines should be approached as very serious projects. Taking into consideration who the clients are, what sort of technical development is necessary, what staffing will look like, and what sort of scaling is to be anticipated are all key considerations.
It is not, in other words, an ideal project for an inexperienced group, even though, at first glance, the requirements for a hotline may seem minimal.
With the right team, however, and the right amount of dedication, there is no doubt that a good hotline can be invaluable for saving lives.