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311 call center to debut Jan. 1

There are about 850 listings for the City of Philadelphia in the phone book, covering more than four pages in tiny type. But as of midnight Dec. 31, there's only one number Philadelphians will need to know: 311.

Officials hope the city's new 311 call center center takes some of the load off 911 operators by diverting nonemergency calls. (Jonathan Wilson/Staff Photographer)
Officials hope the city's new 311 call center center takes some of the load off 911 operators by diverting nonemergency calls. (Jonathan Wilson/Staff Photographer)Read more

There are about 850 listings for the City of Philadelphia in the phone book, covering more than four pages in tiny type.

But as of midnight Dec. 31, there's only one number Philadelphians will need to know: 311.

The city's much-anticipated new nonemergency call center will formally open Jan. 1. In theory, callers will soon have a single access point to request city services like tree trimming, obtain information such as rec center hours, or get directory assistance for the city's 26,000 phones.

Operators will be available 24 hours a day, and the goal is to answer each call by the third ring. Callers who seek specific services - such as towing an abandoned car - will be given tracking numbers to follow progress on their requests.

It all represents a significant improvement in city customer service. But the Nutter administration says that in time, 311 will accomplish much more.

Officials say it will increase efficiency and worker accountability throughout city government as requests - and the speed with which departments respond to them - are closely tracked and analyzed.

They say 311 has the potential to save the city plenty of money in years to come.

And they say 311 will deal a blow to a political culture in which many residents assume the only way to access city government is through a ward leader, a Council member, or another political player.

"I view 311 as a great tool for democracy: Everyone gets equal access," said city Managing Director Camille Barnett, whom Nutter hired in part to bring 311 to Philadelphia.

About 60 cities nationwide have adopted 311 lines, in part to ease the load on 911 operators who routinely field nonemergency calls. The ambition and scope of the call centers vary widely from city to city, but Barnett said Philadelphia aimed to build one of the most robust 311 services in the nation.

"We will do what a lot of cities are doing, but we are also going to use 311 in a strategic way," she said.

That means closely linking the data the 311 center collects to PhillyStat, the city's numbers-driven management method.

"We'll look at the calls that come in about litter and see how that connects to crime statistics, and look at the relationship between those things," Barnett said. "It's an atypical way to use 311, but I think it makes a whole lot of sense, and I think people will move to it."

It will take some time for the system to ramp up, she acknowledged.

Initially, callers will not be able to make requests online. Some services - booking an appointment at a city health clinic, for instance - cannot be handled by 311 operators. And it is unclear how much detail callers will be given on the status of their pending service requests, because many city departments do not yet have the sophisticated software needed to trace work orders.

"I don't think it's going to work wonders the day it opens. At the moment, it's a citywide call-intake and constituent-service system," said Councilman Bill Green, who is pushing the administration to overhaul the city's information-technology infrastructure.

Green thinks the city ought to adopt a single, paperless work-order system for the entire government and integrate it fully into 311. Then, he says, 311 really will have the potential to improve City Hall's efficiency.

Barnett acknowledged there was plenty of work yet to do on the systems behind the call center.

"The customer calling experience is pretty much there, but on the back end, well, we do a pretty good job in some areas and in some areas we need a lot of help."

The caller experience could use some fine-tuning as well. The call center has been in soft-opening mode for several weeks, fielding calls made to the city's old switchboard number. But with two calls placed over the last week, operators were unable to provide basic information about the city's 10-year property-tax abatement program, which is administered by an independent agency. On other calls, though, operators were readily able to identify library hours and answer questions about trash collection and recycling.

Unlike cities that spent millions establishing their 311 services, Philadelphia has done it on the cheap. The combined 311/PhillyStat budget is $2 million a year, but the city spent just $344,000 in start-up costs and will spend only about $550,000 a year on new annual expenses for 311, as most of the 75 employees who staff the call center were transferred from other city jobs.

The city has also used off-the-shelf software instead of a customized program. The call center is in a newly renovated City Hall room that doubles as a backup 911 facility. The $4.2 million facility was paid for through a federal fee on phone lines, and the state distributed the money.

Nevertheless, as the city closes libraries and drains public pools in response to a $1 billion-plus five-year budget gap, some have criticized Nutter for spending money on a new program.

"The mayor is making choices. At the same time he is laying off library workers, he is hiring customer-service people for 311," Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the city's white-collar union, said in an interview last month.

State Rep. Mark B. Cohen (D., Phila.) has been the most outspoken critic of 311. He questions the point of a program that, in his view, will serve only to increase demands on government when City Hall lacks the resources to meet current needs.

"You would think 11 branch libraries are more important to the city of Philadelphia than a service that exists to let people complain about services," Cohen said, referring to the library closures that are part of the city's response to the nationwide economic crisis.

Some observers wonder whether the budget crunch will prevent 311 from fulfilling its promise.

"I think if it's well-designed and well-resourced, then it's a good thing to move ahead with despite the financial crisis," said Zack Stalberg, president and chief executive officer of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy. "If it's cheated of resources more than a little bit, it probably fails."

Stalberg said 311 could help equalize constituent services, which now largely flow through City Council offices.

"Right now the level of constituent service is pretty uneven, based on the quality of the Council person involved, and whether or not the constituent has the skills to deal with the councilmanic office," Stalberg said.

But he said he doubted that any call center would work well enough to eliminate the value of having someone with political juice work the system.

"Will it do away with favors? I don't think so. That's really embedded in our culture," he said.