Gotham Gazette Wed, 26 Sep 2018 15:24:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Inside 311, the City’s ‘Front Door’ to Government 311 HQ pic 2013

311 in 2013 (photo via the Mayor's Office on Flickr)

The vast LED board updated in real-time: 36,529 calls since midnight, it said for a late-afternoon moment one August day. Perched in a high-ceilinged room in Lower Manhattan, the board tallied work done and signified work to be done, with numbers jumping every few seconds as the New York City 311 call center buzzed with the steady hum of staff members speaking into headsets.

“Hello, and thank you for calling NYC 311.”

“Did you have a question about bus schedules today?”

“One moment.”

It was a relatively slow day for the nation’s largest municipal contact center, Call Center Director Joe Morrisroe explained. And, at about 4 p.m. it was not “peak hours,” which are generally around 11 a.m., Morrisroe said. At NYC 311, which serves as a “front door” to city government for New Yorkers, an average of 58,000 calls come in daily, comprised of anything from noise complaints to inquiries about city agencies to requests for new trees to be planted.

“In 2015 we handled over 20 million phone calls,” Morrisroe said. “If you take all the other municipal contact centers in the U.S., they didn’t total 20 million phone calls. And every major city has one.”

In addition to being a national outlier by volume, NYC 311 is currently fulfilling unprecedented functions even within the city. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg frequently referred to 311 as a resource for New Yorkers to suggest improvements for their city, Mayor Bill de Blasio has added to that purpose, indicating that callers can - and should - seek information about new initiatives like the city’s municipal identification program, IDNYC, minimum wage requirements, and more.

Since it was founded by the Bloomberg administration in 2003, 311’s operation has expanded steadily with the addition of 311 Online in 2009; text message and social media support in 2011; and a mobile app that launched in 2013. In 2015, 311 fielded 13 million online requests and over one million requests through its app, a figure Morrisroe says is growing rapidly.

The agency, funded through the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, was allocated over $41 million in the new Fiscal Year 2017 adopted budget, which took effect July 1. NYC 311 staffs approximately 400 employees annually, which has remained constant for the past few years, according to the 2016 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

“Historically, New York City wasn’t the first 311. When they first started in New York, they took cues from other cities,” said Morrisroe, who has been the call center director since 2008. “But right now we’re the benchmark, and as a matter of fact, other cities come to us.”

According to Morrisroe, 311 fits into de Blasio’s agenda of equity and financial mobility. In recent months, de Blasio has used press conferences to urge New Yorkers to call 311 for food stamps support, tenant concerns, and immigration services. De Blasio has repeatedly said New Yorkers should use 311 to find the nearest IDNYC center, reiterating this recommendation during an August 18 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. So far, 311 has already received over 500,000 total requests for information about IDNYC, a relatively new initiative, according to Morrisroe.

The three most common causes that lead New Yorkers to call 311 are noise complaints, complaints about inadequate heating in buildings, and requests for bus and subway information. But call center employees must be knowledgeable about each of the city’s agencies, and go through a 10-week training process at the start of employment.

“The customer doesn’t need to know how to ask their question or who to ask about,” Morrisroe said. “They just get to say, ‘Here’s what I need, can you help me?’”

When a customer first calls 311, they hear an automated message reminding them to hang up and dial 911 for emergencies. The automated message also lists whether alternate-side parking is in effect that day or the following day, which filters out a large share of callers, according to Morrisroe.

The average wait time to speak to a 311 responder is 14 seconds. In the call center, employees taking calls navigate two desktop computer monitors on which they record complaints, search for information on city agencies, and read results back to customers in real time. That afternoon, close to 100 employees monitored phones at the call center.

If callers have a complaint rather than a request for information, 311 operators will file it with the pertinent city agency and provide the customer with a tracking number. From there, the city agency is responsible for fixing the issue, and customers have the option of checking back with 311 on the progress of their complaint via phone, the 311 app, or the 311 website.

The agency also has a Twitter account, which responds to a constant flow of questions but does not file complaints. On one recent evening alone, the account directed a user to free city-funded sewing classes, listed steps to register a nonprofit, and fielded a complaint from a disgruntled library patron, who wrote, “just saw 3yr old boy pee n street cause rosedale library told him bathroom was broken then said it's 4staff only #smh.”

“Sorry to hear this. You can file a complaint about a NYC branch library/employee online,” 311 replied, along with a link to the appropriate complaint form.

This process is essentially non-stop. Complaints and requests flow into 311 24-hours-a-day, and the agency acts as a communication network between and among city agencies. Traffic is the heaviest on weekday mornings during the winter, when customers ask about travel conditions and government office closings, and on afternoons in the summer, when storm damage and heat concerns drive requests.

The number of employees in the call center reaches 400 during these peak hours and dwindles to about 20 late at night. The call center office also has a glassed-in manager’s office, which can act as a center of communications for the city during a crisis—two white phones are affixed to the wall; one a direct line to the city’s emergency management system, the other a direct line to the NYPD.

Although city crises are rare, Morrisroe said NYC 311 has played a crucial role during them. Throughout the duration of Hurricane Sandy, 311 employees slept in the call center on cots to provide overnight service. On the call center’s busiest day, during a 2011 blizzard, employees from other city agencies came in as backup to help field nearly 300,000 calls that came into the center in one 24-hour period.

“If there’s bad weather conditions and everything’s closed, that does not apply to 311 employees,” Morrisroe said. “We’re always here, we’re always open, and our employees are legendary for trudging through the snow if they need to in order to work.”

Despite this streamlined system, miscommunications still occur. While 311 is well-equipped to handle day-to-day complaints, there appears to be a lack of clarity for New Yorkers about when an issue should be directed to 311 or directly to another agency. It has also become clear that city agencies don’t take complaints or red flags and enter them into the 311 system.

Notably, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito exemplified these issues in August when she tweeted a picture of a broken crosswalk sign to the NYC Department of Transportation and asked them to “take care of it.” A few hours later, the DOT account responded that crews had been notified, and added, “For fastest response, pedestrian or traffic signal issues should always be reported immediately by calling 311.”

Mark-Viverito responded with a tweet of incredulity, starting with “I'm sorry...whaaaat???” and told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview that the incident has made her consider a Council oversight hearing on how the city takes complaints. It is indeed a common refrain from city agencies on social media: call 311 with your issue.

While most agencies outside of NYC 311 do not have a mechanism for filing complaints or connecting customers to 311 directly, Morrisroe said 311 has an Agency Relations department that works to exchange information about trends and public awareness with other city agencies. Other departments do not, however, directly transfer complaints to 311—instead, those with complaints are usually instructed to call 311 directly.

This is an imperfect model, according to Noel Hidalgo, the executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology movement. Following the Twitter exchange between Mark-Viverito and DOT, Hidalgo expressed frustration that Council members, community boards, and other agencies—like DOT—must refer customers to 311 to file complaints, rather than being able to quickly file the complaints themselves.

“How can we have a 21st century government when #govtech uses 20th century workflow?” Hidalgo tweeted, adding, “Let us not pave a cow path. Let us use service design & open source tech to build better.”

Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, had a similar thought after her experience. “I think the other issue here was, and that’s where we’ll probably do a hearing, is: how are complaints being logged from different city agencies,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette. “People use social media very aggressively these days. Other cities have been able to really incorporate that as a way of logging complaints. It seems like we may have some deficiencies in that.”

Despite an occasional run-in and perhaps the need for a rethinking of the overall system, the city’s ability to provide information and address complaints has been met with consistently high approval from customers - something likely to be touted at a Council hearing, if there is one. A 2015 customer satisfaction survey conducted by CFI Group, Inc., a private consultant, found that 85 percent of callers were satisfied with NYC 311, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Morrisroe lauds his staff as the reason for such high ratings.

“It’s the dedication of the women and men who work here are,” Morrisroe said. “They live in New York City and they know the person on the other end of the phone is their neighbor, their fellow New Yorker. And I think that does something, I think that allows them to give better quality service than if you’re in the for-profit world.”

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Inside 311, the City’s ‘Front Door’ to Government Mon, 12 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Push for a Better Mayor's Management Report Continues 311-cust-serv 

The City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations held an oversight hearing on Wednesday to evaluate the structure and content of two annual city reports that measure everything from the wait times on 311 calls and the conditions of city parks to the number of unsheltered homeless people and traffic crashes in the city each year. These key performance indicators help the City Council and the public keep city agencies and offices accountable. Those agencies, in turn, rely on these reports to improve their policies and functioning.

The administration releases two detailed reports each year - the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report (PMMR), two weeks after the January financial plan, and the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), in September. The reports include evaluations of annual goals set by 41 city agencies and 3 non-mayoral agencies that report directly to the Mayor, and whether these agencies are succeeding or failing to meet their objectives.

Wednesday’s hearing, the third one held by the governmental operations committee on this issue, gave Council members an opportunity to delve into the process of how agency goals are included in the reports and to reiterate their request for adding more data to future reports. Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the committee, highlighted some of the key concerns the Council has about a lack of clarity in certain agency goals, agency indicators with no set targets, and the need to directly link agency performance with corresponding budget allocations.

The PMMR and MMR are produced over six to eight weeks by the Mayor’s Office of Operations (MOO). About 10 MOO staff members work with more than 150 senior staff across the agencies, including deputy mayors and agency commissioners, and coordinate efforts with City Hall to release the final products, which detail agency goals and indicators of whether those goals are being met year after year.

There are 1649 metrics by which agency performance is tracked in the two reports. Examples include quality-of-life summonses issued by the New York Police Department, the number of people on the city’s cash assistance rolls, the average daily attendance in city schools, and the number of families entering the city’s homeless shelter system.

The report tracked the NYPD’s goal to reduce the number of quality-of-life violations, a critical indicator without a set target. The four-month numbers (the timeframe for the PMMR) fell from 142,434 in Fiscal 2015 to 125, 685 in Fiscal 2016.

Under the Department of Education’s performance, the report looked at average daily attendance in city schools, which surpassed the 91.7 percent target in Fiscal 2016 (93.2 percent) and Fiscal 2015 (93.5 percent). Similarly, the report showed that the Department of Homeless Services had been successful in reducing the number of adult families entering the shelter system from 521 families to 466.

The data, which is available on an interactive website, includes comparisons with previous years, five-year trends and a look at desired directions for performance. This year’s PMMR data was also available on the city’s Open Data Portal, providing public access to all the information collected under the report. Kallos, an ardent supporter of transparent and accessible information and technology, praised MOO for this effort.

“We really take care not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to targets and indicators in the PMMR and MMR,” said Mindy Tarlow, MOO director, at one point during Wednesday’s hearing. “We try to see each indicator and each agency as a complex diverse case that’s in some ways reflective of the complex diverse city that we’re monitoring and reporting on.”

City Council members took turns questioning Tarlow and her colleague Tina Chiu, deputy director for performance management. The members usually stuck with issues germane to issue committees they chair or sit on, but the larger concerns voiced at the hearing were about the lack of targets for many critical performance indicators and the ways in which targets are set and the reports are improved.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the government operations committee, commended MOO for changes they had made to the PMMR based on recommendations from a December 2015 hearing about how targets were defined in the reports. This year’s PMMR included a more nuanced description of targets, which can be numeric or directional. Numeric targets set expected performance levels including a maximum that should not be exceeded or a minimum level that should be met. Directional targets indicate whether an indicator should go up or down. Many indicators had no target at all, which gave cause for concern to Kallos and Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, who testified at the hearing.

When Kallos asked why certain indicators had no targets, citing the number of lawsuits brought against the city as an example, Tarlow clarified that many of these indicators are “neutral” statistics out of their control, such as certain population numbers, for which it’s impossible to set directional targets.

“Although the committee is pleased that some improvements have been made,” Kallos said in his opening statement, “our review of the most recent PMMR suggests that further changes could make both of these publications more helpful tools for the Council, the public, as well as  the agencies.”

The City Council, in its Monday response to the mayor’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017, identified 57 indicators across 18 agencies that they want included in the MMR going forward. Kallos brought this up at the hearing, specifically pointing to indicators for the Board of Standards and Appeals, which falls under the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which is under Kallos’ committee’s oversight. He also mentioned a City Council data study that found 107 indicators (70 critical ones) where there was a 28 percent discrepancy over last year’s PMMR and average performance over the prior three years.

kallos rules hearingKallos (pictured*) also questioned Tarlow and Chiu about indicators relating to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the 311 helpline system and the Department of Homeless Services, but his main concerns were about holding people accountable for changes to the PMMR and MMR, further clarifying how targets are defined, minimizing the number of indicators without targets, and linking performance indicators in the PMMR to the corresponding allocations in the preliminary budget, as the City Charter mandates for the PMMR.

“Who has ultimate responsibility for the changes that are being implemented?” Kallos asked Tarlow, frustrated that Council members’ requests for additional indicators in the past had been routinely agreed to by agencies but not followed through on. “Is it with the agency or Operations, and how do those changes actually end up happening?

Tarlow stressed that the creation and addition of indicators was a collaborative process with agencies. “We don’t dictate play to the agencies and the agencies don’t just unilaterally make changes,” she said, agreeing to consider improvements in communication with Council members. She also said that they had started to work with the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget to cross-reference and link the PMMR with the preliminary budget.

Kallos’ concerns were echoed by Dadey, who reiterated recommendations that Citizens Union had made in the past, which shows, he said, “a challenge that we face that we’ve been back here several times making the same recommendations and while some of them get adopted we think that some of the more common sense ones are not being embraced and we’re at a loss to understand why.”

Dadey floated three specific proposals: setting targets for half the indicators in the report which had no metrics to judge them by (the number of indicators with no target increased from 948 to 961 this year from last); providing more budget detail alongside performance indicators; and expanded reporting on cross-agency initiatives to track transparency (for instance Freedom of Information Law requests) and voting registration programs at agencies.

He called the lack of targets for half the proposals “disconcerting” as “it indicates one of two troubling possibilities. Either the agency experienced difficulty in setting goals in coordination with the office of the mayor or that these goals have been established and are possibly being concealed from the public. Neither is satisfactory,” he said.

To the administration’s credit, MOO has made effort to add sections on multi-agency initiatives, such as IDNYC, which was eventually folded into the report on the Human Resources Administration. “That’s what we want,” Tarlow said in response to questions from Council Member Carlos Menchaca. “To really feature a multi-agency new initiative and then have it be so routine that it becomes baked into the fabric of what we do on a day-to-day basis.”

Menchaca wanted to know how the PMMR and MMR reports evolve and about efforts to make the report machine readable. His larger concern, as chair of the Council’s immigration committee, was that the data be accessible to New York’s immigrant communities. “What do you do to get the report out in other languages?,” he asked.

Tarlow’s answer was unimpressive. “I actually don’t know,” she said.

Lisa Neary, general counsel for the Independent Budget Office, also testified, although less about the content of the reports than the process. IBO had testified at the December 2015 hearing as well, recommending legislation that would require citizen surveys to be included in the reports. The idea has been championed for a long time by Baruch Professor Doug Muzzio and a relevant bill has been introduced by Council Member Corey Johnson, though it has not received a vote.

On Wednesday, Neary focused on the timing of the two reports. She said the PMMR being released early in the year was inadequate since it only accounts for the first four months of the financial year (July to October).

“With only this partial picture in hand,” Neary said, “the Council lacks crucial information that would allow you to link objectives to resources, and resources to outcomes.” She cited the current PMMR’s data on Department of Education programs, where at least a dozen critical indicators were listed as “not available.” She said the MMR’s release was “even more poorly timed,” and should be some time between January and June to have maximum influence on budget decisions.

When Kallos asked her for suggestions, she said perhaps the MMR should be released with the executive budget in May and then a full accounting of the year should come out in October or November. “The key thing is to have as much information as you can at the time that you’re making resource allocation decisions,” she said.

Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the parks committee, questioned Tarlow and Chiu about PMMR indicators on park maintenance and capital park projects, as well as on the lack of information on eviction prevention and legal services. Council Member Vincent Gentile, in keeping with his position as chair of the oversight and investigations committee, asked MOO to consider tracking the performance of individual Inspectors General under the Department of Investigation. Tarlow had ready answers for both Council members and promised to discuss their concerns with individual agencies.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

*Photo of Ben Kallos by William Alatriste

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization to Citizens Union.

Push for a Better Mayor's Management Report Continues Thu, 07 Apr 2016 19:34:38 +0000