A few years ago, I had a little problem with the voting. I’d signed up for a mail-in ballot and as soon as I did, I knew it was a huge mistake. All my adult life, I’ve been going through the civic ritual of showing up at the neighborhood polling place, being greeted by the friendly neighborhood poll worker, going into the little booth and casting my vote. As Election Day neared and I had yet to receive my mail ballot, I began to worry. What if it doesn’t show up in time? Can I go to the polling place anyway? What should I do? So who did I call? 311. The friendly guy on the other end of the 311 line answered my question and eased my anxieties about the late mail-in ballot.
In the late 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission came out with ruling giving local government a new tool, the “311” designation for non-emergency calls. The original idea was to take the pressure off of 911 call-in centers, which often got non-emergency calls from confused citizens. Hampton, Virginia, became one of the first cities in the country to create a 24-hour, seven day a week, one stop customer call center using 311. The goal was to provide customer service as quickly and efficiently as possible, minimizing the number of times citizens would have to hold on the phone and or by told to call another city department.
The 311 systems vary in quality and extent from city to city, and these days cities are cutting back on hours and services because of the budget crisis. But Hampton’s call center’s knowledge base allowed customer advocates to answer more than 4000 different questions about local government and other nearby public agencies. The system is based on keywords, allowing customer services advocates to quickly input questions and get the answer. It also gave the capability to directly issue work orders to handle problems such as potholes or downed streetlights.
The system has helped alleviate one of the biggest challenges in local government performance, the ignorance of many citizens about who does what, and thereby, who to call. In many regions, government services are dispersed between villages, townships, cities, counties and a myriad of special districts. Simply calling city hall, in other words, may result in nothing more than a referral to another agency or department. Now the customers/citizens have an easy task. When in doubt, simply call 311.
Somerville, Massachusetts, a 2009 All-America, has a 24-hour 311 call center service allowing citizens to ask questions and make requests for service. Easy to answer questions are handled immediately. Others are answered in a timely manner through e-mail or a follow-up call, ensuring that citizens are not shunted from one department to another. Requests for service are entered into a database, given a tracking number so citizens can find out how things are proceeding.
In Somerville, the 311 system is a two-way street. The calls and work orders became an important source of data for the city’s data-driven performance management program, a system known as SomerStat, which was started by the city’s energetic mayor, Joseph Curtatone. The origins of SomerStat go back to 1994 and efforts by the New York City Police Department to link crime fighting efforts to timely, accurate data generated by police calls, computers and databases under the city’s CompStat program. Geographic information system software was used to pinpoint problem areas in the city and regular performance management meetings were held to ensure that resources were being deployed in the most efficient manner. The resulting drop in crime rates was dramatic, and other cities noticed. Baltimore created its CitiStats program using data to drive performance management in all city departments.
Somerville has added a new twist to the “stat” concept, combining it with good old fashion face to face meetings. Somerville began its ResiStat meetings in 2007 to complete the feedback loop between citizens and government. The comments and suggestions of residents are reported back to the SomerStat semiweekly data-driven performance evaluation meetings and compiled in an annual Resident Report that is published along with the official city budget.
As part of Somerville’s ResiStat” program, the mayor, the local alderman and other city officials meet with citizens in each of the city’s nine wards, which correspond roughly to neighborhoods, and five special interest groups (parents, young people and speakers of the city’s three main foreign languages—Spanish, Portuguese and Creole.) The goal of these public meetings is to present information generated through SomerStat, the city’s data-driven performance management system, and get feedback from citizens.
The 311 systems are great for answering questions quickly and easing the frustration of citizens who get tired of hearing, “sorry that’s not my department.” But at Somerville and other cities are proving, 311 can also help complete the information feedback loop between citizens and government, which is an important element of any thriving democracy.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.