Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city was adopting a 311
hot line for public complaints, he promoted it as a way to help New
Yorkers navigate the hurdle-strewn path to city services.
But in the nine months it has been active, 311 has become that and
much more. In ways large and small, city officials are using information
gathered through the 311 system to re-examine how city agencies carry
out their jobs.
When pothole complaints started pouring into 311 after a harsh
winter, Iris Weinshall, the transportation commissioner, dispatched an
extra 150 workers to pothole duty, and the backlog of complaints has
dropped to 975 from 3,000.
After irate residents reported problems with noise, double parking,
public urination and disorderly youths over the summer, law enforcement
officials used 311 technology to map out complaints by neighborhood and
track down their source: illegal social clubs.
And after the 311 system made clear that more than one agency was
responsible for responding to common problems — like missing manhole
covers and obstructed signs — city officials assigned a primary agency
to handle each kind of complaint, eliminating much of the confusion and
the delays of the past.
For the first time, the 311 system is drawing together in one place
all the complaints, commentary and other myriad bits of information that
used to trickle in on scraps of paper and through hundreds of phone
lines spread out across city agencies.
The people who run the system are then using sophisticated computer
technology to analyze this trove of information provided by the public,
churning out reams of data that provide statistical snapshots of city
In practical terms, this means that city officials can now look
across the broad scope of their operations and allocate their resources
more quickly and efficiently to address residents' needs and problems.
"It allows us to do more with less because we can see exactly
how agencies are performing and manage our existing assets better and
smarter," said Gino P. Menchini, the city's commissioner for
information technology and telecommunications, who set up and runs the
system. "It allows us to be able to do what we need to do without
having to add additional resources. It's cost avoidance, more than
The 311 data, at the mayor's direction, is also being used much like
the Police Department's highly touted Compstat system, to check up on
how city agencies respond to the public every month and to hold
commissioners accountable for the results.
At a recent social event, for example, Ms. Weinshall was quizzed by
the mayor about how many outstanding pothole complaints she had, she
"You don't want to say, `I don't know,' and have him say, `Well,
I know, you have 975 pothole complaints," said Ms. Weinshall, who
spends several hours a month studying the data from 311. "It keeps
you on your toes.' "
The 311 system operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, out of
centers in Lower Manhattan and Long Island City. On a busy day, it
handles more than 30,000 calls, helping to free up the 911 system for
emergencies. Altogether, it has taken 3.69 million calls since March.
Similar systems already existed in cities like Chicago, Dallas and
Baltimore, some of which are also using their call data to fine-tune
In New York, each call is answered by a 311 operator, who then takes
down a request or complaint, or transfers the call to someone else who
can. If necessary, a caller is given a tracking number so that he or she
can check back on a complaint's status.
The driving force behind it has been Mr. Bloomberg, who seems to
relish using the phone line to call in potholes and illegal dumps, and
then checking back to make sure they have been addressed. The number is
publicized on everything from bus sides to trash baskets, and Mr.
Bloomberg touts it at every opportunity — so much so that it has
become a standing joke. ("Who are you going to call?")
While the overall level of customer satisfaction is still difficult
to gauge, Mr. Menchini said that he kept track of comments from callers.
He said people praising the service outnumbered those criticizing it by
two to one.
But Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, said that her office has
received a number of complaints from people who say they tried 311 and
did not get help. She said she tried 311 herself, but hung up after
being placed on hold for 35 minutes. "I think there are always
kinks in a lot of systems," she said. "But I do think you need
a safety net, something that's going to be a backup to that system when
it falls down."
City officials, however, say that 311 has evolved into an important
management tool. Just logging in the more than 7,000 services that the
city provides — from repairing potholes and picking up refrigerators
to issuing permits for baker's ovens — forced officials to examine how
the city operates.
Even as other city departments are cutting back, the 311 system has
grown from its original $21 million price tag into a $27 million-a-year
operation with a staff of 375. One early effect, though, was to take
much of the complaint load off individual agencies.
After the city's tough antismoking rules went into effect last
spring, the health department offered free nicotine patches to any New
Yorkers wishing to quit. Its hot line quickly became overloaded with
calls, and the then-new 311 system kicked in to handle 30,000 more
requests for the patches.
The department now uses 311 to distribute information about birth
certificates, flu shots and West Nile virus, among other things,
replacing dozens of other hard-to-remember phone lines.
Similarly, the 311 system has weeded out calls to the Police
Department about nonpolice matters and allowed 35 communications
technicians who used to staff a quality-of-life hot line to be assigned
to other jobs. Police officials said that just having the system meant
it could route all calls about noise and other neighborhood issues
directly to local precincts. Previously, callers used to dial 911 or the
quality-of-life hot line, and were not always referred to the right
"It is an efficiency tool, no question about it," said
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. "We used to be the department
of first and last resort. People would call us for just about anything,
and now the calls are properly allocated."
Not everything has gone smoothly. The 311 hot lines receive between
4,500 and 4,900 calls a week from people trying to figure out how to
dispose of an old refrigerator or air conditioner. For a while, the
system connected them, wrongly, to the office of the sanitation
commissioner, John J. Doherty. "It wasn't the worst thing in the
world," said Mr. Doherty, who took down their information and
passed it on. "In a relatively short time, they got the system up
Mr. Menchini said setting up the database uncovered a problem with
the city's day-to-day operations that had long gone unnoticed: there
were overlapping jurisdictions among departments that resulted, at
times, in confusion, delays and squabbling over who was responsible for
fixing a particular problem.
For example, the Parks and Transportation Departments would both
respond to complaints about streets signs obscured by trees. But in one
of those oddities of bureaucratic logic, who would fix the problem would
depend on what part of the tree was at fault. If it was the trunk, it
would be transportation workers. If it was the branches, it would be a
pruning issue for park workers.
Similarly, manhole covers had become another source of interagency
tension. The Transportation Department repairs manhole covers that are
street hazards — except in cases where they cover sewer or water
lines. Then it becomes the responsibility of the Department of
"People would call, and depending on how you described it, you
could call D.E.P. and they'd say `Not us,' and you could call D.O.T. and
they'd say, `Not us,' " Mr. Menchini said. "So it was hit or
miss, and it was always unclear, and it was an inefficient model."
Because of 311, officials said, they started a policy of designating
a lead agency to respond to all calls about a specific kind of problem.
In the case of manhole covers, transportation workers reported that in
90 percent of the cases, the problem was being referred to the
Department of Environmental Protection, so that department was
designated first responder to manhole calls.
Ms. Weinshall said that her workers made fewer wasted trips after the
change, and have been able to respond more quickly to problems that they
can resolve, like potholes and broken traffic lights. "It gives us
the ability to focus on these issues, and not go off on wild goose
chases," she said.
Meanwhile, city environmental workers have seen their workload double
as they now respond to an average of 140 manhole complaints a month
compared with 70 before the change. But Charles Sturcken, a department
spokesman, said that the 311 system has also ended the unproductive
finger-pointing that delayed such repairs in the past.
In the case of obstructed street signs, officials determined that it
was most frequently a Transportation Department problem, so that is now
the lead response agency.
Mr. Menchini and his staff monitor every call that comes in,
compiling the data into increasingly detailed reports. These reports are
sent to the mayor every two weeks, and a customized version to the major
departments every month.
Each report shows how many calls were received about a particular
problem or service, and how many were resolved in that month. If there
is a backlog of complaints, the data also tells how long ago each
complaint was made.
But 311 can do more than just record and track calls. Increasingly,
its sophisticated technology is being put to use in qualitative ways.
For instance, the system has taken the calls about illegal dumping and
plotted them on a map to pinpoint locations where the problem seems
especially persistent. Mr. Doherty said he plans to increase enforcement
in those areas.
Similarly, law enforcement officers are mining the 311 data to find
illegal social clubs. "It has enabled us to analyze where the
quality-of-life concerns are so we're better able to address them in a
pro-active way," Commissioner Kelly said.
The 311 data is also being used to set service standards for city
agencies. Mr. Menchini said that each kind of service will eventually be
assigned an average response time; callers can then expect to have their
problems addressed within that time frame.
Some commissioners say that it is already having a profound impact.
"311 really has changed the way we do business," said
Thomas R. Frieden, the health commissioner. "It's primarily not a
money-saving thing, it's primarily an improvement in customer service.
What it allows us to do is reach people — or allow people to reach us
— much more efficiently."
Many political analysts and government oversight groups concur that
311 may be remaking city government in a fashion that is more open, and
more civilized. "There's not a strong tradition in New York of city
managers taking feedback from citizens," said Charles Brecher,
research director for the Citizens Budget Commission. "So I think
the direction is a very positive one. The real issue is how well they're
In the meantime, 311's biggest advocate, Mr. Bloomberg, said that he
was pleased with the progress so far.
"It's not just a citizen service hot line, it is the most
powerful management tool ever developed for New York City
government," he said. "I can't imagine running the city