Who You Gonna Call? 3-1-1

June 5, 2012

3-1-1 is the agency in Houston that you can call for just about anything.  They answer questions about trash pickup, court dates, water problems, etc.  Pretty much any question you have in Houston can be answered by 3-1-1.  After stating in this blog several times that 3-1-1 should not receive more money and should not stay open more hours, I was invited to come and take a tour of the agency to see what really happens.  Of course, I was skeptical.  I have been to many meetings over the years where I have heard several council members tell their constituents that if they have a problem they should not only call 3-1-1 but they should call several times and have their neighbors call too.  Otherwise their issue won’t be addressed.  Meeting after meeting, 3-1-1 sounded like an inept agency draining the tax dollars without providing real service.

After visiting 3-1-1 and hearing what truly happens every day, my opinion has changed.  3-1-1 handles 5,500 – 7,200 calls a day with only a 111 second wait time for callers, and they are trying to reduce the wait time to 30 seconds.  I observed the employees taking calls.  It was literally one call after another.  Each 3-1-1 worker has two computer screens.  One shows the municipal court system, and the other shows their internal 3-1-1 system.  Considering that 35% of the calls are related to the municipal court, this allows them to easily navigate when helping callers.

3-1-1 is also adding more technology to their agency.  They already updated their website to make it more user friendly, and they are also working on an app that will allow you to take a picture of the problem and send it directly to them.  If you call in to 3-1-1, they can assist in 98 languages.  They not only record each call, but they also capture the computer screen during the call.  So if someone calls back and says that 3-1-1 told them the wrong information, a supervisor can not only hear the call but can also see exactly what the 3-1-1 employee did on the computer during the call in real time.  Quality Control also listens to 10 hours of random calls a week to make sure calls are being handled properly.

I’ve heard from council members that they can’t see specifically what their constituents are calling 3-1-1 about.  I thought this was completely ridiculous.  How can a council member possibly know where to allocate funds or what projects to introduce if they don’t know what their constituents are calling about?  Well this is just not true.  They showed me exactly how a council member can see what their constituents call about and break it down into categories or even by super neighborhood, street, or zip code.

I was really impressed with 3-1-1, so it had me wondering why there is such a contrast between public perception of 3-1-1 and what really happens there.  After speaking with the agency, there seems to be a couple of reasons for this dichotomy. First, some council members don’t seem to really understand what happens at 3-1-1.  Even if you have a few members who tell constituents the wrong information, it spreads.  For example, council members often tell their constituents to call multiple times and get their neighbors to call too. That then becomes the belief of the whole district, when in reality 3-1-1 only really records one call for each complaint.  Their computer alerts them when someone already called about an issue.  Rather than opening another service ticket, they simply give the caller the id number for the case so they can check the status.  Calling multiple times does not put the problem on the list multiple times.  Of course if it is a huge issue where many people are calling, they can send a note to the agency, but as a whole, calling multiple times by many people doesn’t speed up your complaint.  I urge 3-1-1 to work with council members so they have the correct information, and it sounded like this is something that Frank Carmody, the Assistant Director of Operations, is already working to remedy.

Next, 3-1-1 gets the negativity when someone calls and it takes an agency a long time to fix the problem.  They answer calls for 23 departments.  3-1-1 doesn’t actually go and fix the problem but rather they send it to the correct agency.  For example, if you call about a pothole, 3-1-1 takes that information and sends it to Public Works.  It is then up to Public Works to get the job done.  They have a certain amount of time to fix it, but if they are backed up and take a while, many people assume that the problem is with 3-1-1.  Therefore they often get the negativity for everything that goes wrong with city agencies.  This appears to be a case of “killing the messenger.”  (There are pothole statistics at the bottom of the post).

Although there is negativity associated with 3-1-1, many people still call them every day.  According to the agency, the call volume supports the need to be open more hours.  It does seem like they are operating efficiently and effectively; however before making a decision on increasing the budget or adding more hours, their budget needs to be looked at carefully to see if the agency makes sense economically per call when compared to the private market.  Right now we don’t know if we are overpaying or underpaying for services, and this is the sort of thing the city needs to do a better job at across the board for all agencies.

Pothole statistics for January 1, 2012 through May 20, 2012:
Status            Total               Average Duration
Closed             2,796                  4.73 days
Open               31
Overdue           0
Total                2,827


Update: Frank Carmody from 311 informed me that they do track their costs versus other call centers and compare favorably.  Their fully loaded cost (including rent, depreciation of the CRM, etc.) is $3.39, compared to other large contact centers at $4.47.  If comparing 311 to a Complex center (which they could also be classified as), the private sector’s fully loaded cost is $6.88.


$4.54 Billion Budget Proposal

May 15, 2012

Mayor Annise Parker unveiled a $4.54 billion proposed budget, including $2.08 for the General Fund (see her press release here).  The General Fund is where most of the city operations are funded.  Mayor Parker said about the budget that “Houston’s economy is doing much better than it was a year ago. Our job growth continues to be the envy of the rest of the nation, property values are improving, and consumer spending is on the rise. Challenges remain, but we will continue to meet them head on, making the right decisions even when they are tough.”

Let’s take a look at what we know so far:

Positive Aspects:

–          Over two-thirds of the General Fund will continue to be allocated to public safety.
–          Does not include a property tax increase (maintains the existing property tax rate of 63.875 cents per $100 of taxable value).
–          No fee increases.
–          No layoffs/furloughs/ service cuts.
–          Does not borrow money to pay for the pensions.
–          For the most part, it is a flat budget with “with funding levels for all departments at essentially the same levels as last year – with the exception of contractual increases for pensions and increases in health benefits, fuel, electricity, and information technology costs.”
–          The budget replenishes the Rainy Day Fund.

Negative Aspects:

–          Restoring night and weekend hours to the 311 assistance line is a waste of money.  There are so many problems associated with this department.  Calling 311 is often a nightmare for Houstonians.  You have to call several times, and you usually have to get your neighbors to call too before anything is done.  Since nothing will get done no matter what time you call, I see no need to pay for additional hours for this service until this department is more accountable to us.
–          While it is definitely positive that the budget hasn’t increased this year, how do we really know if we are spending the right amount of money in the right areas?  We need a better system to review and automatically remove wasteful spending and unnecessary programs.  Until we have this in place, passing any budget is irresponsible.  Right now it is just a guessing game.

These are just a few items that jumped out at me from reading Mayor Parker’s press release.  I am sure that there will be much more to say about this in the weeks to come as the budget is scrutinized further.  Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the “negative aspects” column will start to grow bigger and bigger… as will the budget once all the council members try to add more to it.

3-1-1 (Part 2)

February 26, 2010

In the blog I posted yesterday, I outlined the problem Houston’s 3-1-1 program has with abandoning calls.  Today, I will spotlight what is, arguably, the biggest problem with 3-1-1: your city council members have no idea what problems you are calling 3-1-1 about!

The is no system in place for collecting information from 3-1-1 and sending it to your council members.  Here’s an example.  Let’s say you call 3-1-1 because water is backing up in the ditch behind your house because of clogged pipes/outlets (a common problem in Houston).  So you call and wait and wait.  Nothing happens.  By this time, your neighbors start noticing the problem too, and they call 3-1-1 as well.  Since a few people now made note of the situation, 3-1-1 finally sends out someone to inspect and maybe clean the ditch.  Temporarily the water resides, but when heavy rain hits down again, you face the same problem.  Year after year, you and your neighbors call 3-1-1 about this, and you wonder why no one will address the problem by fixing the outlet of the ditch to better collect debris before it has a chance to clog.  To make matters worse, your city council member just announced the flooding projects he or she is planning in your district, and your area isn’t on the list.

Sound familiar?  The reason why nothing gets done is because your city council member probably doesn’t know that you have a problem at all!  3-1-1 does not alert the elected official’s office and tell them anything.  Even if you call your council member’s office instead of 3-1-1, all they do is call your complaint into 3-1-1 for you.

Here is the solution: require 3-1-1 to send over a report to each council member each week.  It could not be that difficult to do if the information is entered into a computer system similar to the one the state uses.  I can run a report in my office in less than a minute.  How many people had a problem with their food stamp card this week? … DONE.  It’s that easy!  I am shocked that this isn’t standard practice.  How could a city council member possibly know what changes need to take place in their district if they have no idea what their constituents have problems with?  You can’t fix something you don’t know exists.

3-1-1? More like 9-1-1! (Part 1)

February 25, 2010

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.