Don't hang up yet on Philadelphia's fledgling 311 nonemergency call service.
Despite a critical review by City Controller Alan Butkovitz, Mayor Nutter's signature customer-service initiative - given more time, and with improvements suggested by Butkovitz - could live up to its promise.
Other cities, including New York and Baltimore, have turned to 311 call centers as a way to speed the response by police, firefighters, and ambulance crews by freeing up 911 operators to handle real emergency calls in life-and-death situations. The 311 centers also serve as one-stops that help citizens maneuver through the maze of the bureaucracy.
On both counts, the controller's study released last week found the 311 service wanting. After more than two years in operation, Butkovitz found that calls to 911 had been reduced only marginally, and that due to budget cuts, the 311 service wasn't available late at night or on weekends.
Not surprisingly, mayoral aides bristled at Butkovitz's harsh critique of the service as "a glorified answering service that costs taxpayers $6 million a year." But they acknowledge his point, at least, on the need to publicize the 311 service more heavily.
The resulting attention is likely the only way to change ingrained habits, so that more citizens will dial 311 - and not 911 - when they have a nonemergency concern. But it will take time.
To a greater extent, 311 officials also need to catalog the nature of each call and request for service, which is not done now for the many calls for which operators have ready answers. That data could be useful in helping the city devise additional ways to get information to residents, as well as prioritizing city services to get more bang for tax dollars that are in short supply.
It's a hopeful sign that, according to city Managing Director Richard Negrin, the vast majority of 311 callers say they're pleased with the service.