Friday, April 11, 2008

City Council Continues 10-Year Battle for 311 Service

The City Council held hearings Thursday on an improved constituent service hotline. Despite the Boston Globe's recent trumpeting of the issue, they buried coverage of the Council hearing to page B4 (probably because City Editor Brian McGrory vowed in 2003 "never spill a drop of ink writing about the Boston City Council") -- and then buried the most alarming quotation towards the bottom of the story:
[Boston Chief Information officer Bill Oates] acknowledged a switch to the catchy and simple 311 could elicit a flood of new calls.

"One of the challenges of 311 is we don't want to turn the button on 311 and have a volume [of calls] that will overwhelm the capacity of the call center," Oates said. He said city officials are currently focused on improving the city's response to calls made to the mayor's hot line. "It's a fairly well-known number," Oates said.

Yes, you read that correctly: a top city official doesn't want to roll out a service that more people would call -- he wants to keep the call volume at its current, low level.

The city's CIO also seems to think that the phone number of the Mayor's hotline is well-known, which is a disputable assertion. (See poll below.)

On top of that, a quick search of the record shows that the City Council has been lobbying -- unsuccessfully -- for the 311 service for over a decade.

The Phone Number Few People Know -- Or Call

The truth seems to be both that Boston's current system has a very low call volume compared to comparable cities, and that most residents don't know where to call.

The population of Baltimore is only 20% larger than Boston, yet its 311 service -- the first ever rolled out in the U. S. -- receives about 3000 calls (4.6 calls per 1000 residents) compared to Boston's 450 (0.8 calls per 1000 residents) to the "Mayor's 24-Hour Constituent Service Hotline." And of Boston's small number of calls, the city claims that around 80% are never logged because they are merely informational requests, not complaints. That leaves Boston with only 80 substantive calls per day (0.14 per 1000 residents) to the Mayor's hotline. New York City? Forty thousand calls per day to their 311 number since it started in late 2002, or 5.0 calls per 1000 residents.

Why so few calls in Boston? Are there no potholes in the city?

In last fall's Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor campaign, at a candidates' forum I asked one candidate, Rosie Hanlon, if she ever used the Mayor's hotline (she said no); a number of other candidates privately admitted the same. Only half of the candidates for Councilor-At-Large claimed to have used the system when responding to a written questionnaire. (Two other candidates dodged the question, while Councilor Felix Arroyo candidly admitted, like Hanlon, to never having called the number.)

In my roles both as a blogger and a member of several civic groups, I often hear complaints about city services. Very, very few people in my experience know the phone number of the Mayor's hotline; many people don't even know that the hotline exists. And those people are the ones who are involved at some level in community events -- civic leaders and long-time, not transient, residents. (Some of the noisiest complainers in Brighton have admitted to me they have never called the number!)

It's quite clear to me: the Mayor's 24-Hour Constituent Service Hotline doesn't get many calls because most people either don't know it exists, or don't know the phone number off the top of their head.

When you combine that observation with CIO Oates' statement that the city doesn't want an increase in call volume anytime soon, the cynical argument is that the city wants to keep the current system to avoid dealing with constituents and their complaints.

City Council Held Hearings About Rolling Out 311 Service -- In October 1997

In the 1996 presidential campaign, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in Sacramento, California pushing the concept of a city services phone number for non-emergency services, as part of his support for community policing. The City of Baltimore rolled out their service in October 1996, and the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of the 3-1-1 phone number in February 1997.

Former Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor Brian Honan joined with current Councilor-At-Large Stephen Murphy to hold hearings in October 1997 (archive fee) to look into having a 311 service in Boston:
Lost pets, illegally parked cars, noisy parties, cars blocking driveways and a host of other issues are regularly fielded by emergency operators, according to City Councilor Brian Honan. He said he is concerned that the calls bog down the 911 system, making it more difficult for police, fire and emergency officials to promptly respond to more serious emergencies "In terms of Boston, there is a significant number of nuisance calls into our 911 system," said Honan, who represents the Allston-Brighton district and proposed the hearing along with Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy. "We're going to examine the issue to see if it's a feasible, viable option to adopt a 311 system."

Murphy, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, which will hold the hearing, said the concept mimics a program in Baltimore, where the number of calls to 911 dropped by 43 percent as a result of the new public nuisance line.
The Globe recently noted that Councilor Murphy "has been pressing the city to adopt 311 for nearly a decade"; actually he's been doing it for just over a decade, albeit more to relieve "nuisances" from the 911 line than to deliver constituent services.

Despite this pressure, city officials aren't totally giving in, according to the Globe: "[Mayor Thomas] Menino's spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said the existing hot line has served the city well."

Which might be true if "well" means having a number that few people seem to know and even fewer call.

Online Poll

I have put up an online poll about what number you should call if you wanted to have a pothole filled today. No Peeking! No Searching Online! The point is to see if the readers here know, off the top of their heads, what number to call.

To vote, you have to load the full website in a browser.


Steve Garfield said...

I wrote abotu this too. I went to the hering.

Why don't we crowd source our own web solution?

Karl C said...

In today's cell phone world, I have programmed the Mayor's Hotline into my phone's address book. For me, it doesn't matter if it's 311 or 617-whatever. The bigger problem isn't easily remembering 311, but better announcing the fact that there's a city complaint number out there to use.