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
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.