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311: A New Use for a Not-So-New Tool

Sometimes engaging citizens is as simple as solving their problems.


When all is said and done, what citizens want most of all is for government to listen, react promptly and do its job. In most cases that means response to service needs such as filling potholes and picking up the trash. (Mike Ludkowski/ 

Earlier this year, the city of Philadelphia – one of the communities in the City Accelerator’s first cohort – unveiled its plans for a new 311 platform. The system takes calls for citizen requests for help with non-emergency services with issues such as graffiti and trash pickup – the same as 311 systems across the country. But the Philly 311 platform comes with an innovative twist: It connects citizens directly with local organizations, community members and city officials. The platform includes a suite of citizen-facing 311 services and social media, as well as a Neighborhood Community portal, which allows citizens to communicate with neighbors about concerns and issues.

In short, Philadelphia is using 311 not only to better serve citizens, but to better engage them.

“It’s something new in government for us,” said Rosetta Lue, Philadelphia’s chief customer service officer. “We’ve never done this before; we’ve always had the reactive, ‘Send us your request and we’ll get back in contact with you,’ type of transaction. Now we’re actually talking to people and having conversations online in one big portal where people are generating ideas and coming together.”

Philadelphia’s approach is interesting because it elegantly interweaves people’s desire to have government rapidly respond to their problems with government’s desire to have people be interested in the work it does. The result is a citizen who is pleased that government handled his or her issue, but also a citizen who is more connected with the community in which he or she lives.

Philadelphia’s platform reminded me of how far we have come in responding to citizen needs as technology has evolved.

When I was elected Chattanooga's commissioner of public works in 1987, I found that our service delivery system consisted of employees somewhat randomly taking calls in numerous offices; keeping notes on scraps of paper; transferring those notes to cards in an ancient and clunky key punch system; and then attempting to sort, print and assign jobs to the various responsible divisions. The process was ineffective, expensive and took days to get results. Unfortunately, requests also frequently fell through the cracks.

We replaced that system with three operators who worked at computers in a central office. The operators would take calls throughout the waking hours of the day and type service needs into the city’s database to be transferred digitally to the correct departments for action. We called the service simply “The Hot Line.”

In the 1990s, major urban centers such as Chicago and New York City began to utilize technology in a more aggressive and ambitious fashion to handle non-emergency service requests. In 1996, the innovative city of Baltimore first used 311 as the central designated telephone number for service information management. And, in 1999, Chicago began the first comprehensive 311 system utilized for multiple purposes such as taking service requests, providing information and tracking orders from intake to resolution.

Not to be outdone, New York City advanced the use of the 311 system beyond data collection and began using the information for analysis of the quality of service response. In January 2002, Mayor Bloomberg proposed the implementation of a comprehensive 311 initiative for non-emergency services and the city's unified customer service center launched in March 2003.

Through New York's significant efforts, the role of 311 expanded beyond the initial purpose of simply taking calls for service and evolved into a technical management tool for providing greater efficiency and effectiveness in the use of government resources.

Meanwhile, back in Chattanooga, we continued to develop the computerized system we launched in 1987 and became the first mid-sized U.S. city to implement a “One Call to City Hall” program with our new 311 service center in February 2003. Since then, the concept of centralized service processing built around 311 has been more fully developed and now many cities offer mobile applications such as SeeClickFix, where citizens can take a photo of a problem and send to the city to have it fixed.

While 311 started out as a simple way to keep up with common, non-emergency service requests, it has evolved – most recently with Philadelphia’s help – into something more significant in pursuit of the greater goal of effective civic engagement. Cities in the City Accelerator’s second cohort are dedicated to producing models that inspire and achieve greater civic engagement. As we move forward, it’s important to remember that new uses for some not-so-new things can be the most innovative solutions of all. 
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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