December 1, 2003

311 System

Tompkins County has a 911 system for emergency calls, letting people contact a single number for coordinated help with whatever emergency problem they have. 911 seems to have succeeded pretty well overall, though making the change from individual numbers for particular responders to a single call center is a complicated process.

Today's New York Times (registration required) has a piece on New York's 311 system, which uses the same approach for non-emergency calls. New York's bureaucracy has long been considered pretty byzantine, and setting up a single call center for all of these questions sounds like it was pretty difficult, with a few entertaining errors along the way. (Fortunately, non-emergency errors aren't nearly as big a problem as emergency errors.)

Even here in Tompkins County, figuring out who to call about what can take some time spent perusing the phone book and making calls. Last winter we woke up to the sound of screeching tires followed by a soft thud. Somebody hit a deer and apparently kept going. The deer was next to the foot of our driveway in the morning, frozen solid. This hadn't happened before, and no one came to pick up the deer for a week or so. I called the Town of Dryden Highway department, which told me Dryden Road wasn't their responsibility and that I should call the county. So I called the county. The operator started to take my information, then realized I lived on a state road, so she told me to call the DOT. I started laughing and told her the Town of Dryden had passed me here, and she said she'd call the DOT herself, which was great - and the deer vanished the next day.

311 is interesting for reasons that go beyond convenience, though. New York is using it to collect statistics on which problems irk citizens the most, and using that data to direct more resources to common problems. It became clear that some departments had overlapping responsibilities, and they were able to set priorities for handling issues. It also seems like patterns emerge over time regarding the services people need, especially because people can call 311 without knowing precisely what they're looking for.

I doubt this will happen here any time soon given the current state of the budget, but it seems like something that might well lower costs and provide better services in the long run.

Posted by simon at December 1, 2003 9:56 AM in
Note on photos