The Buzz about 311

When a dozen peacocks turned up in Judi Zito's fenced backyard in Pinecrest, Florida, one of 28 small municipalities that are part of Miami-Dade County, she...
by | June 30, 2008

When a dozen peacocks turned up in Judi Zito's fenced backyard in Pinecrest, Florida, one of 28 small municipalities that are part of Miami-Dade County, she knew just what to do. As director of the Miami-Dade Government Information Center, she tested the very service she oversees. She dialed 311.

The call center specialist who answered knew the county Animal Services Department didn't handle peacocks or any other exotic bird, for that matter. But the specialist pulled up information on the "ornamental" birds native to East Asia and gave Zito phone numbers for organizations that could come by to help.

That's not so unusual. Lots of communities provide that service. What's unusual is that Zito would have gotten the same response if she had called from almost anywhere in the county: inner-city Miami, Coral Gables, even out on the water at Key Biscayne. That's because Miami-Dade has a regional 311 system -- something you'd think most of metropolitan America might have, but that most places have been disturbingly slow to implement.

Some states are starting to talk about setting up a statewide system, but that chatter has been short-circuited by tight budgets and falling state revenues -- to say nothing of technological mountains to climb. On the local level, most cities or counties that have 311 centers serve only their own city or county residents. Miami-Dade's Government Information Center is unusual in that it was designed to be multi-jurisdictional from the get-go. A number of municipalities are looking into regionalization by meshing existing city and county systems in a variety of ways.

Getting Started

Easy-to-dial call centers -- 311 systems -- were initially set up to siphon non-emergency calls away from 911 operators. With 311, a city or county resident can complain about a broken sidewalk, report a downed tree or get information about park permits. The locality can then collect data on where the calls come from and what the repeat problems are and use that information to improve services.

The next step for 311 is to broaden its reach by regionalizing -- and that, despite Miami-Dade's success, is proving to be daunting for most city-county partnerships. They have to wrestle with major technological and turf issues, such as integrating and sharing data. They also have to deal with other questions that, minor though they may seem, can rankle. When operators answer the phone, will they say the name of the city first or the county? Or will the greeting be something generic? It's "a real tough thing," says Gina Knepp, the division manager for the city of Sacramento's 311, "to get different entities to agree on the details of doing business together."

The city of Sacramento and Sacramento County are moving toward regionalization informally and incrementally -- working together without actually merging their efforts. At this point, the county has yet to set up its 311 center but the city launched its service recently. Nonetheless, there already is informal cooperation. For instance, people often call the city's 311 with requests for birth and death certificates. The certificates, however, are a county responsibility. City call-center operators could hang up without providing information, but instead they offer the phone number for the county recorder's office and have even given callers directions to the county building.

The city is optimistic that a more formal, regional approach will come to fruition -- eventually. But challenges loom. Within the city, it hasn't been easy to get departments to communicate and coordinate so that information is kept accurate and up to date. The updating, in particular, is a never-ending chore, so adding county information will magnify the difficulty.

As for governance, the city and county call centers would run independently. The two entities have talked about writing a memorandum of understanding detailing to what degree each call center should serve the other jurisdiction's residents or pass them along to the other call center. "If the goal is really to get people assistance quickly and without our usual government red tape," says Betsy Braziel, a communications officer for Sacramento County's e-government program, "we need to eliminate the need for citizens to know if they're asking about a city or a county service."

Different Strokes

In North Carolina, the city of Charlotte administers the 311 system for both the city and Mecklenburg County. Service for both started simultaneously. CharMeck 311, which has been operating since 2005, takes requests by e-mail, the Web and phone. Under the regional arrangement, Mecklenburg County funds 26 percent of the operating budget.

Up north, the city of Minneapolis operates a 311 center but would like neighboring cities to come on board. Everyone would benefit, says John Dejung, assistant city coordinator for 911/311. Cities that joined the existing 311 center would save money because they wouldn't have to build their own 311 system. And Minneapolis would get revenue from the partnership. Dejung points out that some Minnesota jurisdictions are reducing their call-center hours because of lack of staff. A partnership could boost coverage.

As the region prepares for the Republican National Convention in late summer, Minneapolis may have a chance to practice being a regional call center. The city plans to temporarily expand 311 to St. Paul, Bloomington and other nearby localities to serve convention delegates. If all goes as planned, delegates will be able to call 311 and hear, "If you are calling for information regarding the Republican National Convention, please press 1."

When the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County decided to join forces, a lot of swapping and trading began. The city gave to the county its rights to the 311 number plus a half-million dollars. In return, Miami pays nothing to have the county take all city 311 calls, but it also gave up management and control. "It's not a big issue," says Don Riedel, director of Miami's CitiStat/311. "Our goals are the same. Answer the phone quickly and politely with correct information." Municipalities in other regions, however, are not as sanguine about giving up control, and that has dampened efforts to go regional.

There are other challenges. Miami-Dade County has 35 municipal governments within its boundaries and contains unincorporated areas as well. Information from, and about, all entities had to be entered and made easily accessible. For instance, when someone calls to report a pothole or a downed tree, operators must figure out which of 21 public works departments should get the work order.

Also important for a joint 311 service is a formal service agreement among the participating governments. Everyone should be operating from the same set of expectations. And there needs to be a system of quality assurance that can help ensure that satisfaction ratings are reported. Otherwise, Zito says, "You're only as good as your last complaint."

Regional 311 is the sensible and economical way to go. Funding, especially in today's tight-budget era, is hard to come by. Beyond the money, however, it takes so much coordination between and among entities that it's very difficult to accomplish. "The hardest part," says Zito, "is negotiating with another jurisdiction to make it happen."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |