Have You Called 311?

So, let's do a little test of our shiny new governmental service: Have you called 311? Did it work?

I called 311 for the first time on Saturday, because there was an electrical wire hanging down at the end of my block. Being the ever excellent citizen I am, I took action, and called 311 to report it. I was on hold for a couple minutes and when I got someone they told me it wasn't the city's responsibility, and gave me a number for PECO.

So, at that point, I began to sort of fight with the woman on the end of the line. Why? Well, because I am lazy, so I didn't want to have to make another call, and instead wanted them to tell PECO. We kind of argued about that for a minute or two, I temporarily gave up being lazy, and then took the number to call. I called PECO, reported it, and the world didn't fall off of its axis.

Anyway, something about the call disconcerted me, and it took me a while to realize what it was... Specifically, I have become so used to call centers being in some far off place, be it Minnesota or Mumbai, that talking to someone who was clearly from Philadelphia, accent, attitude and all, was a totally different experience.

I don't want to get into the 311 v. libraries debate, because I think like many things that have happened in the past 6 months, it is a false choice. At least for me, even though they made me call someone else, it was pretty nice to see a problem on a Saturday afternoon, and know that there was a number I could instantly call, and they helped me accomplish what I was after.

Have you called?

I'm sure the 311 folks (one

I'm sure the 311 folks (one happens to be a former YPP contributor) would be happy to confirm this, but it's my understanding that the cost of setting up 311 - including the software and what not - is is less than the amount of money that is supposed to be saved by closing down the libraries.

Off the top of my head, I don't remember the figure but I remember being shocked when I was told it. Let's just say it puts in a perspective just how much the City Commissioners over paid for the crappy website they put together for the election results.

what's the number for 311?

>>I got someone they told me it wasn't the city's responsibility, and gave me a number for PECO.

Wow, the disposition of your call seems wrong to me. I would expect one of two things to happen with a call like yours.

Either the city would take charge, and make an agency to agency call to PECO to examine the situation, or they would connect you directly to PECO.

Also, how can the city claim that a situation involving dangling electrical wires does not raise concerns regarding public safety? I think the Fire Department should have been dispatched to investigate.

Also, were you given any sort of tracking or reference number for your call?

And one last general question I've had: what's the number for 311? Really, I'm serious. Is there a standard ten digit phone number? NYC 311 has a real phone number: 212-NEW-YORK. Anyone anywhere can call their 311 system via that number. Does Philly's system offer that?

for futher consideration, some Q & A sessions about NYC 311 with NYC commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/10/answers-about-311/
http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/answers-about-311-part-2/
http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/12/answers-about-311-part-3/

Well- the fire dept

Well- the fire dept investigating or whatever seems like a more general city question about wires being down. And yes, I thought it was odd, too, which is really the subtext for why we fought. It annoyed me that I got in touch with someone in government and they couldn't take care of it. I would have liked them to take my info and let me be done with it.

But, they did give me the correct emergency number for PECO, so, if all they were going to do is connect me, I don't see a huge difference.

weird disposition

I agree that the disposition is weird. If it's a wire then it concerns the general welfare. If you call Animal Control to say that your neighbor's dog is on the loose and your kids are afraid to go outside, they don't give you your neighbors number.

If there's a crack house next to your place and you've seen money exchanged on the front porch and you call the police they don't ask you to go over there and remind them yourself that drug dealing is against the law.

They go and check on it, right?

So why should it be any different if PECO has a line down. Kudos to you, Dan, for making the extra call, but most people wouldn't and it's still a problem for the city. It's not YOUR problem. It's your whole neighborhoods problem.

I'll call, soon, though. I want to know if they can tell me how to make the space in front of my parking lot a no-parking zone. The Street Administration's helpme email never could.

---
This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.

Yes and my reaction is...

...meh.

I called just yesterday to try and resolve an issue with a Business Privilege License that my wife is trying to get. When you try to conduct any kind of business in Philly you need to get a business tax ID number from revenue and a business privilege license from L&I. Our "business" happens to be renting our old house in Bella Vista so we also need a renter's license from L&I which you can only get after you get a Business Privilege License.

So after a very unsatisfying phone conversation with a not very helpful person from revenue about 5 months ago, I was able to properly fill out all of the parts of the application for a business tax ID and sent that in with my check for $250 for the business privilege license. The check was cashed months ago but didn't get the business privilege license in the mail...

... life happened and this became less of a priority until my wife, the one who actually pays attentions to details, asked me to look into why we never got that BPL ...

So I thought, this is great, I can call 3-1-1 and they will take care of this for me!

Whoa... slow down.

I called 3-1-1 and was informed that the call was being recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. I wished that I had my phone tape machine going so that I could tell them the same thing but I didn't. I began to tell my story about my missing Business Privilege License and was prepared to give them every number I had - invoice numbers, check numbers, the Business Tax ID number, social security numbers, lottery numbers, whatever - so that they could track it down for me.

Instead, I was given the number for License Issuance (215-686-2490) along with subtle hints that I'd be better off going to 1401 JFK, lower level, to take care of this. I say subtle hints because she repeated at least three times where to go to take care of this in person but only told me the phone number once. Not a good sign, I thought. I asked if she could take care of it for me, give me one of those tracking numbers, and let me track the progress of this job until my Business Privilege License could arrive. Nope.

Ok.

So I called 215-686-2490 and the phone rang. Five times... "were sorry but all of our agents are busy, please stay on the line..." phone continues ringing (weird, but at this point I would have preferred hold music)... and ringing... and ringing...

I put the phone down. Picked it up about 5 minutes later. Still ringing. For all I know if I had left it on my desk instead of hanging up, it might still be ringing.

At this point, I'm half tempted to call the constituent services person in my district councilman's office and see if they can move this process along for me, which is exactly the kind of thing that I thought 3-1-1 was supposed to make unnecessary.

So my evaluation of 3-1-1 at this point: great if all you want is information about an event or to report a pothole or get the number to call about another issue. But as far as a tool to revolutionize customer service... not so much. If phones reached by the numbers they give out ring forever without being picked up... well, that's the lasting image that anyone wanting to conduct business in Philly will have. Eventually these 3-1-1 operators need to be empowered, or enabled, to track down these issues and resolve them OR all of the other people in city government who are supposed to be at the end of numbers like 686-2490 need to be as responsive and helpful as the 3-1-1 folks are with what they do (or at the very least, be present at 10:30 AM on a Monday).

(Epilogue: So I guess I'll be taking a day or afternoon off from work to go down to 1401 JFK to take care of this issue in person. That may end up being a whole other post...

Everyone Should Read This!

This is a huge example of why Philadelphia is considered a hostile place to start a business. It has a real impact on economic growth in this city and underlines how even for those folks who castigate Nutter as beholdend to "pro-business interests", that the city is still failing to deliver on something very basic - facilitating the ability for someone starting their own business to sign up to pay business taxes, of all things. Does anyone see whats tremendously wrong with this picture?

Thanks, Dan.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I don't see how

this has relevance to whether or not people think that Nutter has a "pro-business" bias.

Also, as someone who has to pay the BPT, and who has had to go through the procedures of acquiring a license, I don't see it as some huge hardship. The issue of the inefficiency in how the City conducts its business, how hard it is to fix problems when something fouls up, how hard it is to get through to various departments on the phone, etc., is not exclusive to the BPT.

agreed, not a huge hardship

But... it most likely will result in having to take a day off, or at least a half day, from my regular job to go to 1401 JFK and take care of this in person, where in other cities, (and I have nothing to back this up since I've never started a business or tried to be self-employed in another city), I may be able to take care of this with a few clicks on a website.

Also, Dan U-A, I'm totally going to copy this thread's idea for It's Our City :) But I guess have to makes some actual calls to the folks in charge of 3-1-1 to see what they say about this.

(EDITED TO ADD) Obviously I've already fully disclosed my involvement what could become a story for our website. I want to make it clear that I don't mean to try and benefit from my connection to a news source to try and expedite my process but I also don't think that journalists should be barred from writing about things that they are personally involved in, as long as everything is disclosed. I plan on standing in that line at 1401 JFK just like everyone else... and then writing about it, too.

I think having to take a day off to resolve the problem is bad

but I'm trying to separate that issue of how difficult it is to get things done in this city from the issue of the logistics of the BPT. What I meant is that it wasn't a hardship to handle the paperwork involved with the BPT, assuming no problems develop (admittedly, I had help from an accountant).

Just some questions

but how many pretzel vendors and guys operating fruit and vegetable trucks jump to getting help from an accountant? Should they have to or should they be able to negotiate the process as simply as possible with a few clicks on the internet? Which do you think is better for collecting more city revenue, go downtown and wait in line and still hire and accountant or easy online application process?
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Clearly, Sean

the simpler, and more Internets accessible the process, the better. All I'm saying is that as it is, assuming that problems don't develop, the BPT process itself is not onerously complicated. Yes, making it less complicated, and making running a business easier in myriad other ways, would be desirable.

The fact that when problem does develop, it can't be easily rectified, isn't so much a function of the BPT as it is inefficiency and a lack of accountability in the City gov.

I didn't get an accountant because I needed help with paying the BPT or acquiring the license; I was using an accountant anyway, so he helped making the process simpler.

Better man than I

I definitely can not figure out how to pay it without an accountants help.

Whatever else you say about the IRS if you qualify the 1040 EZ is a breeze. Even the state website for sales tax is pretty easy but I for one can not say that for the BPT. Regardless of what you think of where the BPT's rates are set, the process itself, as well as getting the license, could be much, much more user friendly. And generally user-friendly equals greater compliance and easier and cheaper enforcement when it comes to collecting taxes.

Thats all.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I called yesterday

I called yesterday regarding a construction site which I believe is blocking a sidewalk in an unsafe manner. The 311 operator took down all the information and told me she would open a case with L&I. She said they would call me to follow up. I did not receive a tracking number (and didn't think to ask for one until I had hung up). They haven't followed up yet (and I don't see any change at the construction site), but hey, it was just yesterday.

I was pleased with this experience-- I only had to talk to one person, I didn't have to wait on hold or get transferred around, and the number was easy to remember. I was able to report my problem from directly outside the affected location; I didn't have to look up a phone number on the city's website. If they actually do follow through on solving the problem and getting back to me, I'll give them ten out of ten.

To the person who asked "what's the number for 311" this is from the city's website:

Can I use my cell phone to contact 311?
311 can be accessed via a cell phone if your cellular company carrier has programmed the 311 number to its towers. If not, you can call 215-686-8686 on your cell phone and be connected to the City of Philadelphia 311 Contact Center.

I called 311 when recycling

I called 311 when recycling wasn't picked up around its usual time on the scheduled day to see if they were holding off on pick up until the new weekly pick-up kicked in the following week. The operator was very nice and extremely helpful. She asked me to hold and then contacted the local streets department office for my area. When the man at the office answered, she introduced herself and then proceeded to introduce me. We were on a three-way call. She instructed me to ask my question, which I did. The man from the streets department then told me that I would need to hang up and call back directly because he did not want to discuss this with a 311 operator on the line. Basically, he didn't want to be recorded. When I asked the 311 operator if this was standard procedure, she told me this was the first time she ran into such a request but if I really wanted an answer to my question, I should do as the streets department asked.

When I called back to the number he gave me it went straight to his voicemail.

Now that's government customer service.

Point: No software program can fix the culture of a city, its government and those who work in it and live off of it.

Oh man...

Oh man...

They knew it was Vern!

Dude, gotta hit #67 first!
;)

Joshua Vincent
www.urbantools.org
www.ourcommonwealth.org
Phree Philly

My impression is

Streets Dep't is not taking kindly to "new way". Obviously the thing to do if you have the time is call again and force the Streets guy to do it while 311 is online and for good measure record him yourself trying to weasel out and put it up on the internet.

-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I called again

It took a couple of minutes to get through. I wanted to know whether my trash and recycling would still be picked up today given the snow. If not, I didn't want bags of recycling and trash sitting in slush for 36 hours, etc etc.

The guy put me on hold, and then got the answer for me (yes, still being picked up) in a minute or two.

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