311 Potholes

Consolidating call centers is proving to be a boon to cities, but the roll-outs are rough.
August 1, 2007
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

New York City announced a major milestone in June: the 50 millionth call to its 311 center since its March 2003 launch. What officials wisely neglected to mention was the rough road to implementation. Cities with 311 on their wish list envision an efficient system for citizens to report problems and for city administrators to track how services are provided. Cities that have implemented systems, though, have an earful for the up-and-comers: They should prepare to get hit from all sides. Citizens complain. Agency personnel are fearful. City councils are skeptical. Media outlets are harsh. The 311 projects that overcame these obstacles had managers who persevered to avoid derailment, soothed frazzled nerves and explained the merits to doubters.

New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver are considered to be 311 success stories. They consolidated call centers and hotlines. Citizens no longer have to thumb through page after page in the phone book. People in need of services just dial the magic number.

But let's rewind to the beginning phases. First hurdle: convincing the city council of the worth of a 311 system. That took some effort in Denver, says Molly Rauzi, deputy chief information officer. And once the council was on board, it was important to set proper expectations. Policy makers have to understand that such a system can increase costs. Call center personnel are answering more service calls than ever before. And council members also had to be disabused of the notion that the first call would come in within 90 days. A 311 system is a large project that takes more like 18 months to kick off.

In Chicago, city aldermen were concerned about where they would fit into the 311 equation. Would it rob them of their role in constituent services? The solution was to create a customer evaluation form with the alderman's name on it to send to residents. If services are not completed to the caller's satisfaction, they know whom to call, and their alderman becomes a key part of the service.

Agency personnel also resist 311. These systems can lay bare what goes on behind the scenes. They offer a way to measure productivity and efficiency that wasn't available before, and what reveals itself isn't always pretty. Denver agency staff feared for their jobs. New York employees didn't want the spotlight turned on them. "Your agencies are going to be exposed," says Jane Brennan, New York City's executive director of 311. "People will find that things don't work right." If cities are lucky, she says, they can fix problems before they appear on the television news.

The skepticism goes beyond government offices. Once citizens have access to a 311 system, a new set of complaints arises. In the beginning, Baltimore citizens grumbled that it didn't work. They somehow expected that as soon as they called, someone would fix their problem. But the system is about routing and tracking service requests, not performing services. "We don't put you on hold and put on the jumpsuit and go out and pick up the trash," says Lisa Allen, Baltimore's director of 311.

Once a city builds a 311 system, citizens will be more aware of the city's blemishes, whether it's a poorly performing agency or something else. There will be repeat callers complaining about what hasn't been fixed yet.

The media also pick up on problems. Denver was scalded by a Rocky Mountain News article revealing that taxpayers will end up paying $3.31 for each call answered by the city's 311 customer service line by the end of this year. That didn't sit well with the city council. "In their minds, it's 40 cents a call," says Michael Major, director of 311 operations. Data also showed 11 percent of calls are abandoned, most likely because of people being put on hold for too long.

The system is still a work in progress. But Major sees the bright side of some ugly statistics. Denver now has a baseline for the future, information it never had before. "Last year, we had no idea how many calls there were to agencies." And that's where the perseverance becomes worthwhile to cities. A 311 system, when working well, can reveal important, useful information.

The positive benefits of these systems can make cities fall in love with 311, says Lydia Murray, the Chicago Transit Authority's chief of staff. Yet, they shouldn't be lulled into thinking that 311 provides an accurate snapshot of the city's greatest needs. It is a reflection of who is willing to call for services, not an illustration of the areas of greatest need in a municipality. If cities rely too heavily on 311 for their information, she says, they may be "missing a huge piece of public safety."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com