GOVERNMENT SERVICES 311 PHONE NUMBER
December 8, 2008
I have noted elsewhere that a conservative estimate of what it costs to run the 311 system is $4.5 million, and that is about the cost (which may be as low as $3.5 million) of running the 11 affected branch libraries.Former PA House Speaker Bob O'Donnell gave a speech to the Pennsylvania Press Club recently on November 24, 2008 in which he blasted the 311 system as a waste of money.And the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, in a report issued in July of 2008, said that the 311 system was one nine major financial risks the city was facing over the next five years.Just two days ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, a pioneer in using a 311 system, issued a report which said that just 41% of the residents of New York City recalled using the 311 system with the past year, and, of these, just 48%--or 20% of New Yorkers--had their complaints or inquiries resolved to their satisfaction
December 5, 2008
The 311 System is supposed to be run by CURRENT CITY EMPLOYEES. They are bureaucrats. They are people who have been answering phones in other city agencies. I seriously doubt that there will be some magical improvement in results because they are using expensive software costing minimally $160,000 per year, and in all likelihood ultimately customized for the city of Philadelphia at a cost of $4 million to $8 million. I believe the customized software is necessary for the system to function properly; New Orleans is a conspicuous example of a city that tried to go without customized software and then faced massive public complaints about the 311 system. I have called city bureaucrats directly, and encouraged my staff, City Council staff, and constituents to also call them directly. I am aware of the problems with service delivery. I am highly skeptical, however, that these problems will be solved more easily if city bureaucrats get five or six times the number of complaints under the 311 system than they get now. The implicit cumulative demand of all the demands for better city services will be to raise taxes to pay for the better city services. That was the implicit cumulative demand of all the Sunset Review Audits conducted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that helped end the Sunset Review Audits and the Sunset Review process in 1990.Program evaluation is not some brand new idea. The city archives are full of program evaluations, and so are scholarly journals, lists of master's and doctoral dissertations, foundation commissioned studies, non-profits like the National Civic League, newspapers, and the publicly available files of federal agencies dealing with the government. The idea that program evaluation began with 311 software, or that 311 software is necessary for program evaluation, is simply false.December 3, 2008http://www.phillyblog.com/philly/architecture-urban-planning/71057-how-much-philadelphias-311-system-going-cost-2.html
*The issue with 311 is that it costs big bucks at a time in which library services, recreation services, and fire services are being cut. It would be fine with me to have 311 if we had the money to pay for it. When we are essentially paying for 311 services by cutting library services, then I have a real problem with that because I believe the value of library services is real, tangible, and long lasting, while the value of 311 services is essentially based on the misguided and inaccurate beliefs that there is no way to directly communicate with city officials today, and that there is no evaluation of city services today. I would suggest that the believers in evaluation here visit the city archives and look up the thousands of evaluations of city services that have been done in past administrations, and the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of audits of city spending by Philadelphia's many city controllers over the years. Furthermore, there are countless doctoral dissertations and master's dissertations that have also focused on the delivery of city services, as well as scholarly articles in various journals and articles in newspapers and magazines. The National Municipal League was formed around the turn of the 20th Century with program evaluation as a key goal, and the organization still exists today under the name of the National Civic League. A look at their program evaluations in different cities in different decades would be very interesting to at some of the posters and readers here. The concept of evaluation of city services did not begin with the developers of 311 software; it has been going on throughout our lifetimes with increasing detail as computers developed.December 1, 2008http://www.phillyblog.com/philly/architecture-urban-planning/71057-how-much-philadelphias-311-system-going-cost-6.html
*The 311 System is a "choice," the managing director told me earlier today in a telephone conversation. It is starting at precisely the same time that the library closings are occurring, a situation, along with high likely total costs, that make clear that we can have libraries instead of the 311 system. Similarly we can have both libraries and the 311 system if we either cut somewhere else, get more federal or state aid, raise taxes, or if the economy improves and generates more revenue with the same tax dollars. The declining price of gas and Obama's stimulus plans makes the latter a real possibility. It is the arbitrary deadline for library cuts, variously reported as December 31 or January 16, that forces us to make a decision NOW. It is an arbitrary deadline that was announced after the legislature had for all practical purposes adjourned for the year (the House was in wrap-up session but the Senate was not), and that had the effect of completely shutting the legislature out of the process because the library shutdown was scheduled to occur before the legislature returned to session. I think the 311 system is a risky choice because its price tag is based on the faulty assumptions that (1) no customized software is needed; (2) that utilization of the highly publicized system will be LOWER than the current number of people who call the City Hall switchboard at the current time, and that the PR campaigns on its behalf by the city and software vendors will have no effect in generating business; (3) that the experience of other cities that 311 services usually do not reduce 911 calls and that 311 services are utilized by three to six or more times the total population of the city are irrelevant; and (4) that the city will not yield to the de facto demands for more expenditures of money by the complainants. I predict that the City will inevitably spend $4 million to $8 million on customized software, and that software will have to be updated and service from time to time a high further cost; that the utilization of 911 services will remain the same; that the total annual number of calls will be far closer to 9 million--six times the city population than the projected 1.5 million, about the number of people living in the city; that vacancies left by the departures of the callers into the 311 system will often be filled by new hires, and that the 311 system will be a generator of service demands and tax increases. I believe the maintenance of the branch libraries is both far more useful to getting people jobs and quality educations that is the 311 system, and that we already know many places where we usefully can spend more money at a cost of higher taxes if that is our true desire. There already is plenty of data available about how programs city work or fail to work that goes unread and unused because we are told that the public really values minute annual tax cuts more than services. The 311 system strikes me as being similar to Pennsylvania's old Sunset Review process, where we spent hundreds of thousands per agency to get reports back that we needed to spend a lot more money to improve them. Eventually, in 1990, the legislature decided that it could increase program spending without the Sunset Review process if that was our desire, and it was better to spend money on services rather than studies which produced results that were usually unsurprising.December 1, 2008http://www.phillyblog.com/philly/architecture-urban-planning/71057-how-much-philadelphias-311-system-going-cost-6.html
There has been no decrease in 911 calls in New York City. The 27 million calls per year to the 311 system are in addition to the 12 million calls per year to the 911 system.The vasts majority of people know the difference between an emergency and a non-emergency. What we are talking about is a significant new city function which will add significant costs to the City Treasury at a time of financial difficulty.We can be sure that people will not be calling demanding cuts in city services. People will be demanding more city services than now exist, and listening to any significant number of these demands will further raise the costs of the 311 system at a time in which the demands for maintenance of library, recreation, and fire services are not being heeded.December 1, 2008http://www.phillyblog.com/philly/architecture-urban-planning/71057-how-much-philadelphias-311-system-going-cost-9.html
New York gets about three calls per city resident, and San Francisco gets about eight calls per city resident. If Philadelphia only equals New York in calls per city resident (and we should surpass New York because our Pennsylvania suburbs that identify with the city and use some of our services are a much higher percentage of the metropolitan area than the New York State suburbs are compared to New York City), then we are easily looking at $6 million per year without the $4 million to $8 million customized software.$4 to $8 million in customized software would raise the start up costs from the $4.2 million for renovation plus the nearly $500,000 for consulting plus the $160 for software plus unspecified administrative costs--easily totaling $4.8 million--to between $8.8 million and $12.8 million.The 311 system certainly is not cheap or beyond public scrutiny. And nowhere does the article say that the City Hall switchboard is going to be shut down, or that agencies will not answer phone calls themselves. Nor does it say that vacancies in agencies caused by transfers to the 311 system will all not be filled.
December 1, 2008
There's ancient story about the old Congressman who advised a young Congressman."Vote for all appropriations, " the old Congressman said. "People love new programs. A program that does not exist can be said to do just about anything. Never vote against a new program."Vote against any tax increase," the old Congressman said. "People hate tax increases. Never vote for one."The U.S. Congress has cumulatively been following this kind of advice for a long time now, giving us a budget deficit that will soon hit 11 TRILLION dollars.The City of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania, though, have to pass balanced budgets with only a tiny bit of wiggle room. We have to look carefully at what new programs cost, especially when we are cutting popular existing programs like libraries, swimming pools, and fire engines.The 311 program is being sold as a great aid to improved service efficiency, but little is being said about its costs. The New York 311 system, for instance, started out employing 375 people, had start-up costs of $21 million, and operating costs of $27 million for its first year in 2003-2004. It generated many millions of phone calls, but the number of emergency calls to the 911 system stayed the same.Despite whatever efficiencies the 311 system may have generated, New York City now has a budget DEFICITof $4 billion, about the size of Philadelphia's TOTAL budget.In Minneapolis, the start-up costs were $6.2 Million, and the annual budget costs are $2.6 million.In April, 2004, Philadelphia Weekly reported that the city was spending $1.4 million to set up a 311 system, which should pay for itself by 2007, but that money apparently was inadequate to get the system off the ground, as nothing appears to have happened. Mark McDonald of the Daily News reported in December, 2006 that the Street Administration had decided to shelve the project.We need some real answers as to what Philadelphia's current 311 system costs, and how the money is going to be generated to pay for it. We need specific examples of demonstrated cost savings in other cities that developed 311 systems, and information as to how these cities now fare in budgeting compared to Philadelphia. For a very mixed review by average New Yorkers about the success and failures of the New York 311 system, see the ask-about-311 entry at cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com for September 8, 2008. My efforts to produce a working link to that were unsuccessful.Average Philadelphians, looking at the 311 system prospectively, seem to be as divided about its merits as average New Yorkers. Heard in the Hall on philly.com on November 24, 2008 had a short item noting the opposition of former House Speaker Bob O'Donnell to the 311 system, and the opinions pro and con prospectively were strongly expressed in reader online responses. Again, I was unable to produce a working link.We are not Congress, and our Councilmen cannot endlessly run up debt to pay for current programs.
December 1, 2008
311 is costly wherever it is implemented.In Minneapolis, much smaller than Philadelphia, the start-up costs were $6.2 million and the annual costs are $2.6 million. In Chicago, which merged a lot of existing call centers into a single call center, the start-up costs were $5 million.In New Orleans, a scaled down 311 service has annual costs of $2 million a year to cover just one-third of the city departments. New Orleans claims only $313,000 in start-up costs.In Baltimore, starting costs for technology alone were $3 million, and at the start of the decade the annual costs were $4 million.One problem with comparing these numbers is that there is no central accounting system using uniform methods and providing uniform time periods of comparison. But it is clear that no matter what costs are counted and what costs are generally absorbed in other budget line items, the money spent is significant and it is money that can be used for other programs.
December 1, 2008
Given the financial crisis the city has, the 311 system is probably a luxury we cannot afford.I would much rather have the libraries open, the swimming pools open, and the fire stations open than have a better set of statistics about the city's problems. If we cannot do something meaningful about the crisis we know about, how can we have any belief that we will be able to do something about problems yet to be discovered? More often than not, the problems are about a lack of money, and the Administration has made it clear that solutions to these are off the table. So the 311 system is about spending money to find areas where we need to spend more money that we don't have. This is a waste.If I am wrong and the 311 system is really valuable, perhaps the city could get the private sector to pay for it. My constituents would certainly be glad to have a bake sale for the 311 system if the city would pay for the libraries it is threatening to shut down.
November 30, 2008