Monday, May 17, 2010

Information, Please

Why Doesn't Nassau County Have 311?

Could it be that they really don't want residents to be "in the know?"

New York City has an extensive 311 network, the "go to" for everything from which bus to take from Sheepshead Bay to Pelham Parkway to what items are recyclable. You can dial 311 from any telephone within the five boroughs and actually speak with a live person, or you could access NYC 311 online 24/7. [Check out a fine piece appearing in The New York Times, Insights From a Week as a 311 Operator in N.Y.]

Kinda makes one wonder why America's first suburb, part of the great metropolis that borders the Big Apple and was the City's first bedroom community, doesn't have a similar information outlet.

From planning (nonexistent) to zoning (archaic), 311 to Wi-Fi, Nassau County continues to lag behind not only its next door neighbor, the greatest city in the world, but, quite frankly, the rest of America.

The Town of North Hempstead has a 311 system, and the Town of Hempstead, while sticking to the dated format of the Supervisor's Helpline, does a stellar job in fielding, relaying, and, in most instances, appropriately responding to residents' inquiries [check out the Town of Hempstead's Online Helpline, or you can call with your queries at 516-489-6000. If they don't have the answers, the pleasant and knowlegable staff will point you in the right direction].

Still, Nassau County at large remains in the information Dark Ages, essentially keeping residents of the first suburb, well, in the dark. A burb, seemingly stuck in the 1950s, needs desperately to join the rest of the world, at least on the technology front, as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century. 
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From the Anton Papers (March 24, 2006)

Nassau Needs 311
By Michael Miller 

Longtime readers know that I am a customer service fanatic, and innovations in the delivery of government services to constituents have been discussed in this space more than a hundred times. The town of North Hempstead has made a bold foray into establishing a "311" calling center, and town officials certainly deserve points for this effort to join 21st century local government. Unfortunately, this project was crippled before it began by Nassau County's antiquated local government structures. Before this becomes a real quagmire, town officials should declare victory in their effort to blaze this trail and then do the right thing: Step aside and let the county run 311 for everyone within the 516 area code.

Ten years ago, the Federal Communications Commission designated 311 as a telephone number for non-emergency calls. More than half the calls into big city 911 numbers were not true emergencies, causing backlogs and delays that sometimes had fatal results. Baltimore, Chicago, Houston and New York were the first cities to build 311 systems to take reports on potholes and other non-emergency calls that were straining 911 resources. Very quickly, the idea spread and many 311 systems now have evolved into 24/7 one-stop answer centers. Sophisticated 311 systems use elaborate computer software to collect and report data that can help municipalities allocate workers and materials more efficiently. Leading consulting and software firms, including IBM, Motorola, Unisys and Microsoft are now involved in helping create 311 call systems.

It is now getting difficult to find a municipality with a population of 200,000 or more which doesn't have a 311 system planned or in place. New York City uses its 311 center to not only track complaints but to disseminate important information on a wide variety of subjects, especially during emergencies. Typically, NYC's 311 number receives 46,000 calls per day, spiking to 241,000 calls in one day during the recent transit strike. As Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived, Houston's 311 center played a key role in relocation efforts. Orange County, California, often seen as a West Coast suburban counterpart to Nassau County, launched their 311 system in conjunction with a crash hurricane preparedness program. Chicago's 311 is so highly regarded that they've hosted an international symposium on how their program is run.

311 is so popular that two additional numbers have been reserved as more specialized hotlines. 211 is now reserved for social service hotlines and 511 is for transportation information. Social service call volumes tripled when Atlanta opened its 211 number, and Cincinnati's transit line received 72 percent more calls after it switched to 511. With proper publicity and support, these specialized call lines work.

Most importantly, 311 numbers reduce the stress on 911 operations, a continuing and growing problem in Nassau County. In 2003, County Executive Tom Suozzi announced support for a county 311 program and even included $800,000 for the phone lines and staff in his 2004 budget. However, he appears to have backed off in order to give North Hempstead a wide berth.

North Hempstead has all kinds of special challenges which could thwart a successful 311 system, including the fact that most town residents rely on incorporated villages for basic municipal services.

North Hempstead makes up only part of the 516 area code and shares telephone exchanges with other towns and with Queens County. These aren't small problems. The town 311 number will only work from a land line, at a time when more and more residents are getting rid of traditional land lines in favor of cell phones and other technologies. The first thing a North Hempstead constituent with an urgent question hears when calling 311 is a recording explaining how to reach the New York City 311 if that's the one you're really looking for. The whole point of quick, "first point of contact" service is defeated at the start.

There are other problems, too. The 311 operators actually give less information than the little old civil service ladies who used to answer the phones well for years. Some callers spend long periods on hold only to be referred to another number. Privacy issues have been raised about the recording of caller ID information even on blocked lines.

Sooner or later, Nassau County will implement a 311 system, and you can't have separate 311 lines for the county and one of its three townships. Our 911 emergency system needs relief. Other county residents deserve the 311 service. The typical expense for creating a quality 311 operation with customer response technology ($1 to $4 million) can best be handled by the county. A countywide system can allow everyone with a 516 area code to use the service. It should all be about the best service.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    Nassau County and its townships (like many local governments faced with severe economic pressures) probably views a 311 as a "luxury we can't afford". However this is exactly when a 311 is needed because it allows consolidation of redundant intake functions across departments.

    "Multi-jurisdictional" 311's have proven to be both workable and highly successful across the Country. Miami-Dade County, FL and Charlotte-Mecklenberg, NC are 2 examples collaboration on 311 between a county and its local governments to share services.

    In fact many "single jurisdiction" 311s are looking to expand to provide services to their neighboring municipalities.

    311s are also becoming more affordable as the technology matures. Today implementation and operation options include economical hosted solutions that are as full-featured as the more expensive inhouse solutions.

    Nassau should definitely take a close look at the its 311 options.