July 31, 2007 By Jessica Weidling
New York City is the largest direct-service governmental body in the nation.
With hundreds of service offerings, more than 100 agencies, 350,000 city employees and a growing 8 million resident population (with an extra 2 million people converging on the city by day), only the state governments of New York and California and the federal government compete with New York City in size.
Because of the city's enormity and great service demands, an otherwise simple problem can become a complex issue that involves many agencies. This means a bigger challenge for New York City's 311 call center, which handles most of the city's nonemergency calls, local government questions and requests for service, and has already fielded 50 million calls since its March 2003 debut, according to the Mayor's Office of Operations.
"The issue is that 311 is very popular, and the result is that people call it for everything imaginable, including very complicated human services, building inspections, etc.," said Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a Democrat who represents Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Although Brewer, who chairs the council's technology committee, is a 311 advocate, she's forthright in pointing out its limitations. "The system is so responsive," she said, "but the city is so big and the problems are so complicated that the 311 system needs to utilize some local resources."
By "local resources," Brewer said she means government officials, like herself, and other community representatives possessing invaluable insight on how to get government problems fixed fast, but have been somewhat circumvented by 311.
In response, city technology officials searched for ways to bring civic networks into 311's framework as a way to tap the knowledge of people who know New York's neighborhoods best.
Since Baltimore's 311 center opened in 1996, the concept has proliferated in dozens of U.S. cities. Once used as a way to deflect callers from 911 lines, city governments now use 311 to consolidate city phone numbers and improve accountability.
Call takers at 311 centers use advanced computer systems to track reports, aggregate data and transfer calls to other government agencies or answer basic questions about government.
There's little doubt that 311 can transform a city: Citizens calling to report trash had a hand in raising New York City's cleanliness rating to its highest score since the rating system was created in the '70s.
But consolidating city phone numbers inadvertently limited the people who residents reach out to.
"I think some [elected officials] feel disenfranchised by the fact that they might be getting fewer calls from residents because they're calling 311," said Bruce Lai, Brewer's chief of staff.
311 gives citizens less of a reason to call local politicians who once used their "in" with city liaisons and local knowledge to help constituents finagle through bureaucratic logjams - and then get their votes.
"I'm sure in big politics cities - New York and Chicago come to mind - there was some worry about losing touch with the voters, or more precisely, losing touch with votes," said Gary Allen, editor of DISPATCH Monthly Magazine, a publication about public safety communications. "But even though they might be losing the initial citizen calls, they're definitely gaining better information."
This is especially true if politicians can view 311 data showing what people are calling about, which can reflect potential voter concerns. New York City's 311 call center didn't pass along call data to elected officials, Brewer said, which is why she authored Local Law 47, which mandates that city administrators release monthly reports of data collected on calls made to 311 to elected officials and the public.
The law was passed by the City Council in May 2005, and in June 2006 the first reports were made publicly available.
With the law, New York City joined other big cities in giving politicians and the public