January 31, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer
If you call the city of Hartford
to fix a pothole, it will eventually send a crew to plug it. Have
your neighbor call too, and a second crew might show up at the
same scene. It's a very likely scenario, officials say - and one
they would like to avoid.
A possible solution: a 311 system, a centralized call center, like
911, but set up to answer all non-emergency complaints and questions.
Pothole? Dial 311. No garbage pickup? Dial 311. When does the library
close? Dial 311.
Hartford officials have hired a consultant for $12,000 to study
how the system, an in-vogue concept in local government, can be set
up in the city.
They hope not only to help citizens navigate the confusing bureaucracy
of city government, but also to help city government navigate the
confusing bureaucracy of itself. Each call that comes into 311 would
be recorded by computer in a standard form, said Susan McMullen,
Hartford's director of constituent services. Each complaint would
advance to the appropriate department, and be tracked for how long
it takes to address it, who addresses it (or fails to), and how much
the task costs.
"Right now, we get complaints from all different places," said
Bhupen Patel, director of public works. "If somebody asks me
how many complaints we received on a pothole, I couldn't tell you.
Some complaints I get. Some complaints supervisors get. Sometimes
people will repeat the same request, and there is no record."
McMullen said the 311 system, which she said could be running by
next January, would ultimately be used as a management tool for the
mayor and other decision-makers. Because all complaints are recorded,
managers can easily summon the data and analyze how well city staff
"We get someone who calls and says, `My street is icy. Send
the trucks out there.' We get another call from someone who says,
`My street is icy. Send the trucks out there,'" McMullen said. "The
following year what we'd like to do is run a report that says: `Where
did we get calls where the streets were icy?'"
McMullen said the city's hired consultant, EMA Inc. of St. Paul,
Minn., has not yet quoted the city a price on setting up a 311 system.
But David McDonald, president of PSComm LLC, a 311 consultant in
Rockville, Md., estimated that a city of Hartford's size could expect
to spend at least $500,000.
"This is not an inexpensive endeavor," McMullen said. "And
it wouldn't make sense to do it if we didn't feel like the savings
we were going to reap in the efficiency of our staff didn't outweigh
Chicago's bureau of electricity, McDonald said, saved $6.9 million
by not spending money on duplicate work crews sent to the same broken
streetlight call. Baltimore, the first city to set up a 311 system
in 1996, has since saved $42 million, McDonald said, part of it in
overtime costs. McDonald set up Baltimore's 311 system.
With numbers like that, and with elections won and lost on how well
streets are cleaned and garbage is collected, city officials nationwide
have jumped on the 311 bandwagon.
New York City has a 311 center; it was a campaign promise by now-Mayor
Michael Bloomberg. Large cities such as Houston and Detroit have
it, as do smaller cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Allentown,
"311 is a big buzzword," said Michael Vasquenza, Hartford's
chief information officer, who will have a large hand in setting
up any system that's approved.
But consultants caution that having an efficient system is not a
panacea. Bad management, short staffing or a hyper-political office
atmosphere can sometimes prevent work from getting done.
"There are some [cities] that don't staff it correctly, not
having enough call-takers answer the phone, not having enough service
requests taken care of," McDonald said.
Calling the system is an acquired habit, and if citizens call the
system, don't get an answer, and don't see a response in a timely
manner, they are not likely to use it, McDonald said.
"If you don't have the proper staff level to go out there,
you won't be too effective," said Alex Trujillo, a public works
employee who is president of the Hartford Municipal Employees Association,
a supervisors union.
"You could only be as efficient as the staff level that you
have," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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