WASHINGTON—When a friend's attempt to renew his driver's license was snagged by an unpaid parking ticket, Pam Price had an experience that's familiar to many Americans. "We called metro and they referred us to another number, and they referred us to another number," recalled Price, who lives in Nashville, Tenn. "It took us 30 or 40 minutes just to get to the right person."
Better she should live in Minneapolis, Miami, Kansas City, Charlotte, New York or a host of other cities that have begun using a single phone number—311—as a one-stop call hub for the public's non-emergency business with local government.
It sounds like small beans as ideas go, but many 311 centers are a lot more than switchboards. They use the same software that retailers such as Lands' End rely on to book and track call-center orders, only in this case to issue and track work orders for stray-dog complaints, pothole repairs and bulk-trash pickup.
Phones get answered by live people in a matter of seconds at most 311 centers, on average. Although it's the only call that most callers need to make, every request gets a tracking number. Centers also operate in multiple languages for extended hours, including on weekends.
The service is so good that Becky Jo Glover, who runs Miami's new one-stop 311 city and county center, said she'd heard the ultimate accolade from callers: "They don't believe we're the government."
Moreover, when mayors use the system's computerized data to hold the heads of city agencies accountable for their performance and to plan for future needs, government services improve.
Chicago's Department of Sanitation, for example, cleans up graffiti more than twice as fast now as it did when 311 began in 1999. The inventory at the city's auto impoundment lot is down by half, thanks to 311's help in reuniting residents with their towed cars. The Department of Sewers' response time has improved more than 80 percent. In each case, the improvements came as demand rose.
That's why, in the eyes of many urban affairs experts, 311 service—when yoked to good analysis and creative management—is the biggest and best booster of public-service delivery since machine politics and ward bosses stopped running U.S. cities after World War II.
"It's transformational," said Stephen Goldsmith, the director of the government innovations project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
"I don't know of a better example of a business practice applied to government in a way that really makes sense," said Keith Dawson, the New York-based editorial director of the trade publications Call Center Magazine and CallCenter.com
It's producing soaring usage in most cities and satisfaction rates above 75 percent among callers polled.
"I never expected as many people to stop me and thank me," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who championed the 311 system that opened there in January.
The idea has proliferated quickly since 1996, when Baltimore opened the first 311 center, initially intending only to relieve the non-emergency call burden from 911. At least two dozen U.S. cities have introduced 311 service since 2000, although some, such as Washington's, are intended simply to relieve the 911 lines.
Many in the works are ambitious attempts to improve governance, according to Ted O'Keefe, the director of Chicago's 311 system, who said he'd toured the center with officials of at least 150 U.S. cities. According to Carl Fillichio, the vice president for innovation at Washington's nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, which promotes new ideas in public service, 311 centers have taken off faster than any other major revision in the council's 44-year history.
"It IS wonderful," said Baltimore resident Louis Bothwell, 54, a software-development manager. "I've lived in other cities where, when you wanted to get rid of an old mattress in your spare bedroom, you didn't know what to do. Here, you do."
As familiarity with 311 grows, so does use. Here's the yearly call volume for Chicago, in millions, for each year since its 1999 opening: 2.8, 2.9, 3.4, 3.6, 3.8, 3.9, 4.0.
"If you build it, they will come," O'Keefe said, "especially if you make it easy for people."
Even new centers in smaller cities, such as Minneapolis, Miami and Charlotte, hit a million calls before their first anniversaries.
That's partly because they take any local-government question: Where's my car been towed? Is school open tomorrow? Can you make my neighbor clean up his trash? Overall, the service-request picture generally resembles Charlotte's, which is dominated by calls for animal control, storm water problems, code violations, transportation questions and solid-waste hauling.
Proponents like to argue that 311 centers are "revenue neutral." They say, accurately, that it takes about as many operators to run one centralized phone bank as it once took to take calls at a dozen or more agencies. What that calculation omits is increases in demand for city services—including 311—once obstacles to contacting local agencies are removed.
"You're fooling yourself if you think you're going to save a bunch of money," Rybak concluded. "What you're really doing is improving service."
Sometimes that literally pays off. Baltimore found, for example, that more complaints about trash and other code violations increased the revenue from fines by $850,000 over three years. Tracking storm-water systems that flooded regularly enabled Baltimore to schedule regular preventive maintenance rather than mop up disasters at overtime rates. Letting Minneapolis' 311 center handle voters' inquiries this fall has saved the overtime pay that the city's elections unit once earned for that job.
Call-center data also can improve efficiency. In Baltimore, the deputy mayor puts the heads of city agencies in the hot seat at least monthly in public assessments of performance. They'll compare the speed at which lights are repaired in various sections of the city, the productivity of individual work crews, which areas of the city are underserved and what can be done about it.
In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley has gone one step further by integrating 311 into his scheme of government. To press landlords to provide renters with winter heat and working smoke alarms, for example, the city urges tenants to take their complaints to 311. To ward off foreclosures in blighted neighborhoods, Chicago promotes 311 as a trustworthy number to call for credit counseling 24 hours a day. Thanks to a deal between banks and the city, counselors can—and often do—negotiate in the same phone call new repayment terms on loans that otherwise would go bad.
The key to every 311 system is the mayor's commitment to it, "the tone at the top," noted Stephen Meer, co-founder of Intrado Inc., of Longmont, Colo., a leading call-system contractor. To date, virtually all systems are so new that the mayors who pushed them still run them.
About the only people with serious reservations about 311—in Baltimore, Minneapolis and elsewhere—were some city council members. They wanted assurance of the traditional political payoffs that they earned when constituents called them to arrange city services.
Resourceful 311-center operators in Miami finesse that by taking constituents' service calls for city commissioners when they're unavailable. In cities where the systems are older, such as New York, Baltimore and Chicago, politicians have come to appreciate the detailed precinct-level monthly report cards that the systems produce. By comparing performance across precincts, they have powerful new arguments for better city service.
People with friends in city hall initially worried, too. Nowadays, they use both systems to get things done.
The biggest gainers, according to Rybak, are people who are unaccustomed to dealing with local government.
"You used to have to know the system to get something done," he said. "Now you just need to know the number. And that's a big change."
SOME WACKY CALLS TO 311 CENTERS
311 call centers are supposed to handle thousands of non-emergency calls to city governments daily. This means that their operators get more strange calls than you do. These examples are from Chicago 311 director Ted O'Keefe and Stephen Meer, co-founder of Intrado Inc., of Longmont, Colo., a leading call-system software and services provider.
"I'm having chest pain and need to get to a hospital," the caller said.
"Why didn't you call 911?" the operator asked.
"The pain isn't that bad," the caller replied.
"Can you recommend a good pizza parlor in my neighborhood?" the caller asked.
"Can you give me the number of the U.S. Attorney's Office?"
"Why didn't you call 411?" the operator asked.
"411 charges for information," said the caller.
After TV news reports that a dog had jumped into the Chicago River, callers beset the 311 line.
"What's the dog's name?" one wanted to know.
"Is it OK?" many wanted to know.
"How can I adopt it?" several wanted to know.
"My battery is dead," a caller reported. "Send a squad car."
"They don't jump-start cars," the operator said.
"Why not? They're not doing anything else," the caller said.
To get an idea of what New York City's 311 is doing for its residents, go to www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/html/about/about(underscore)311.shtml
For more on how cities such as Baltimore are using 311 data and statistical tools to improve government service, go to www.ci.baltimore.md.us/news/citistat