Monday, April 26, 2004

City Council Hearing on 311 and Community Boards

Today, I went to a NYC City Council Public Hearing of the Committee on Technology in Government, on the role of the City's 59 Community Boards in the 311 system. 311 is the new number that New Yorkers dial to ask questions about New York City services, make complaints and to get information, such as library hours, bus and trash pickup schedules, etc. Community boards act as local advocates to their district constituents, recording complaints, alerting service organizations to district needs, issuing liquor licenses and making recommendations to the city planning agencies.

I arrived late and did not hear the testimony Dept of Information Technology & Telecommunications, who oversees the 311 system. A representative of the city of Hampton, VA was also present to give testimony on the sucess of their 311 system, which was implemented in 1999. I did hear the testimony of 6 Community Boards, representing three boroughs. I gathered from their testimony that DoITT was not providing the level of access to the system that the CBs require to do their jobs.

A handout of the DoITT testimony, which I read later on the train home, confirmed that they did not address the more specific information needs that the CBs require to effectively act as an advocate for their constituents. DoITT said that they offer aggregate data to CBs, in order to protect the privacy of citizens making the calls. CBs countered that they need specific incident data in order to respond to constituents on the status of complaints. Additionally, while CBs have received the computers, software, internet hookup, training and technical support visits from DoITT staff, many indicated that they do not have access to the data at all. (One CB District Manager joked that the computer support technicians had visited their office several times, but only to upgrade security on the system).

All testifiers from CBs said they strongly support the 311 system as a way to aggregate data and ease the volume of non-critical calls received on a daily basis, but required more involvement, i.e., access to data, in order to record and act on specific complaints in their community and handle more complex problems involving more than a single agency (which 311 is not currently equipped to do effectively - when the call is recorded and forwarded to an agency to handle, the incident is closed. If the wrong agency gets the call, or if another agency is required to handle a portion of the call, there is no process for feedback to the original complainer, or to 311 for that matter, that further action is required). Aggregate data, in the case of pothole complaints, for example, does not show where potholes occur, nor could it show that 20% of potholes in a given district are on a single street, which would indicate an infrastructure problem that the CB would want to address in its planning recommendations.

The CB representatives agreed that detailed incident data and geolocation information could be made accessible from the system, while still protecting the privacy of individual complainants. Still, some CBs suggested that it could be useful in identifying frequent complainers (CBs already know who they are in their districts) and that certain CB staff people who have been calling in complaints from district offices should be identified as such in incident logs rather than treated as citizen complainers.

311 is a great tool for gathering and handling complaints efficiently in a city as large as New York City. It would be a shame if citizens' primary local advocate were left out of the process. I am heartened that the City Council is taking the issue seriously.

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