3-1-1? More like 9-1-1! (Part 1)

For those of you who don’t know, 3-1-1 (also known as the “Houston Service Helpline”) is the number Houstonians are supposed to call when they have a city-related problem (i.e. flooding, sewage, garbage pickups, etc).  Different levels of government have different processes for handing constituent services, but the common goal is (or should be) to help constituents navigate local, state, or federal agencies.  People often call government agencies and get lost in the bureaucracy, so it is important to get them in contact with the correct people to help them with their concerns.

I currently do this job for Senator Dan Patrick as his Director of Constituent Services.  I have been doing this for him for over three years now and have constituent-related experience from other state positions prior to working for him as well. 

Having one office dedicated to constituent services sounds like a great idea, but there are many drawbacks that are resulting in 3-1-1 becoming a failure.  Before discussing these problems, I do want to first point out that in a survey of 117 people, 88% said that 3-1-1 employees are knowledgeable and competent.  94% said employees are courteous, professional, and clear.  So great job to the employees.  This isn’t meant to be negative towards them.  This blog is about spotlighting problems and ways to fix them.  With that being said, I have two major concerns with 3-1-1.  This first blog will outline the problem of abandoned calls, and the next blog tomorrow will outline another problem. 

Since 2005 there has only been one audit of Houston’s 3-1-1 program.  Although it was found to be “working effectively and efficiently in most respects” (taken from the audit here), I disagree.  (SIDE NOTE: the audit was done by Mir, Fox, & Rodriguez, P.C.  I understand the need for independence in audits, but I think this is an audit the City could have done themselves for less money.  Topic for another time in another blog).  The independent audit found that the abandoned call rate is 8% per week.  These are calls that are dropped or not returned.  3-1-1 handles over 2 million communications a year, so they are not getting back in touch with roughly 3,077 people a week (160,004 people a year). 

Houston ranks the worst out of Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York in regards to the amount of 3-1-1 calls that are not answered.  Some of the calls in Houston are dropped because people are frustrated with staying on hold too long.  The audit recommends a change in scheduling hours for 3-1-1 workers so that more people are in the office working during busy times so that people aren’t on hold as long.  Great idea.

Other than changing the schedule, we need another solution for reducing our dropped call rate.  Here is one solution: answer every person’s concerns!!!  I know that sounds silly, but I’m not kidding.  If you ever had the misfortune of having to call 3-1-1, you probably know the trick.  You get all of your neighbors and friends to call on your behalf as well.  One person calling about one problem almost never does the job.  They don’t usually do anything about your concern until multiple people call or until you call multiple times.  How is this ok?  In Senator Patrick’s office, EVERY constituent who calls is addressed.  EVERY one.  Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to help because their concern is not a state issue (sometimes it is a local or federal issue, or sometimes it is a legal matter to which they need to consult a lawyer).  Even if there is nothing I can do for the constituent, they are still given an answer. 

Has our government forgotten that they work for us?  Why should we have to get multiple people to call 3-1-1 to answer a simple issue?  Shouldn’t one person be able to make a difference??  So the solution here needs to involve making workers more accountable.  3-1-1 employees should have to outline every call they receive and note how they addressed the issue.  Let’s keep the good employees and weed out the ones who do not do their job.  If you don’t do your job in the private sector, you get fired.  It should be the same for government jobs too.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 where I will discuss ways to make council members more aware about what their constituents are calling about.

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