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Index for my Toronto Budget 2004 project
Improving Customer Service at City Hall
04/03/2004

One of the less-famous ideas in David Miller's campaign for mayor was the suggestion to implement 311 phone service for the City of Toronto.

I'm sure I could explain the idea behind 311 in fewer words, but this story about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg illustrates it quite well. This is from last week's New Yorker magazine:

In the summer of 2001, while campaigning for mayor in Crown Heights, Bloomberg ran across a leaky fire hydrant. When he asked an aide how a problem like this could be reported, he was told that someone would have to call the designated number at the city agency responsible for resolving it, and that, in the case of the leaking hydrant, this was the help line at the Department of Environmental Protection. Bloomberg, according to the aide, was appalled. “That’s crazy,” he declared.

Not long ago, I went on a tour of the city’s new 311 call center, which Bloomberg created to replace the help line at the D.E.P., along with every other question-and-complaint line in the city. The center, on Maiden Lane, in lower Manhattan, is run by Gino Menchini, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. A genial man with a round face and a fringe of brown hair, Menchini recalled being introduced by the Mayor at an event in the spring of 2002 as “Gino Menchini, who will not be here next year if 311 is not up and running.” The center accepted its first calls in March, 2003, and now receives an average of thirty-five thousand a day.

Menchini showed me around several cavernous rooms filled with rows of identical desks on which sat identical phones and identical computer screens. Every few seconds, someone would answer one of the phones with the identical greeting: “Thank you for calling New York City.” One call I listened in on was from a man who wanted to dispose of a sofa. (He was told to put it on the sidewalk on the next trash-pickup day.) A woman wanted an order of protection against her ex-husband, who kept showing up at her apartment. A second woman wanted the number for a Jil Sander store. (Apparently, she had meant to call 411.) Calls to 311 are summarized daily on a four-color chart—a record, in effect, of everything that has gone wrong over the previous twenty-four hours.

The Mayor is very proud of the new system and likes to call in himself to complain, usually about potholes he has ridden over. A few months ago, as he was driving around the city, Bloomberg was struck, unfavorably, by the amount of garbage he saw on the streets. He asked Menchini to break out the figures involving the Department of Sanitation, and now each week gets a special chart chronicling the number of calls about such unpleasantnesses as missed recycling pickups (more than fifteen thousand so far this year) and dead animals on the sidewalk (nearly four thousand). “This allows us for the first time to manage the system,” Menchini told me. “If you’re looking for accountability, this is it.”

You can also read about 311 here, at this City of Chicago website. It was Chicago's example that David Miller usually talked about.

I experienced the attractiveness of this idea while I was canvassing for Miller. Knocking on doors, some residents would complain about garbage pick-up problems. When I told them about 311 and how they would have a single phone number to complain and get service, they reacted well. It's a good idea because it makes it easy for individual residents to hold the City to account. It makes it easy to find out what you need to know and to get things done.

I suggest improving the system by including a web-based component and "help tickets".

While I briefly tried out the excellent Typepad blogging service, I was impressed by their help system.

When you have a problem, you ask a question through a form on the web. You are given a "help ticket" number to allow you to track the process of your question and make sure you get an answer. When there is a response you receive a message by email. You then can choose whether you need to ask a follow up question or to consider the issue resolved. It's not resolved until you say it is.

(Typepad designed their own help ticket service, but I found a system being sold online with an interesting description.)

I think it would be great if the City of Toronto had this sort of service online so people can get answers to any questions about our municipal government. Imagine a "311.toronto.ca" where you can complain about potholes, find out where to get a parking permit, or ask about when your next garbage pick-up is.

And, I also think it would be great if the two systems were combined. That is, people who phone in could also be issued a help-ticket number. If their issue isn't resolved in one phone call, they'd have a file number to allow them to easily continue the conversation later until there was a final resolution.

Innovation can help take the City's "customer" service to the top, and that should make our government more effective, more accountable and more efficient in the long run.


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