Councilman Jim Kenney wants another memo sent out.
Just about from the start, for almost two and a half years, Kenney says he’s been requesting a monitor that would let him listen into randomized Philly 311 calls.
“I don’t want to get someone in trouble,” he says. “It’s an issue of identifying a problem, finding something that doesn’t sound right.”
With that, he calls off to a legislative aide about again requesting off 311 administration that he gets the device, which he says is common place in large companies with customer service representatives, like at Independence Blue Cross, where he first heard of it.
And that’s just it, though the councilman at large is largely credited for introducing the concept of 311 to Mayor Nutter who Kenney credits with actually enacting, Kenney has no real direct oversight or responsibility for the city services hotline. He just wants to listen in.
By most accounts, it was an act of innovation. An act from a leader who, with fellow Councilman Frank DiCicco, caught push back a year ago for investigating the possibility of suing social media sites like Twitter of Facebook for any involvement they might have had in flash mob organizing.
311 was meant to be the kind of major initiative that could cement a possible mayoral run, as Kenney told CityPaper three years ago, say, in 2015. Brought online Dec. 31, 2008, Kenney first read in 2006 about the growing 311 movement. By early 2007, Kenney had visited Chicago and Houston, seen at the forefront of implementing and innovating with the service, and was actively lobbying for its implementation in Philadelphia, with the now-defunct 311forPhilly.com.
In April 2007, the South Philadelphia native and his staff published and distributed a white paper on 311, including recommendations from other cities and resolutions calling for hearings on the matter. He caught the ear of Michael Nutter, who had left City Council to run for Mayor, and soon Nutter brought 311 on as a feature campaign promise.
A year into his administration, 311 launched, and, as the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative would later tell, in its first year, despite some major shortcomings, won favorable reviews from users and made information more accessible.
Below, Kenney talks about 311 today, tomorrow and why people are still standing in the way.
As always, edited for length and clarity.
Where does 311 stand today in your estimation?
It is not the Mayor’s fault, but we started to roll this out just as the financial crisis hit.
So, it hasn’t been staffed adequately, because there is no money, and we have had to reduce hours based on budget constraints. The PhillyStat tandem to it, the data manipulation part of it, the performance management stuff, was not done properly. The last Managing Director [Camille Barnett, who left in June 2010] did not implement that properly and it had to be scrapped [the program was put on hiatus in July 2010]… It was partly the economy, partly her not doing it right.
[Sarah Sachdev, Kenney’s director of legislative affairs, added that Barnett followed more closely a Washington D.C. model that separated 311 from the data initiative].
Why is something like PhillyStat so important and tied to 311?
Chicago for me, the performance management stuff was most interesting. When we were in Chicago in the 311 center, we listened to calls, we were taken to, like, a PhillyStat meeting.
It was the health department meeting. It was a big conference room with the manager of the health centers, some key staff and the mayor’s chief of staff, a representative from HR, someone from the law department and the finance department. They go through the month’s data: what people were seen, what tasks were performed.
There was a big matrix on the screen, and, say, health center 6 saw twice as many behavioral health clients that month than anyone else. They pointed that out and asked ‘How do you handle twice as many people?’ They found that for this issue, group health sessions were more effective and saw more people. These facilities were able to take that advice, review and maybe implement it.
If a complaint for whatever group had a particular problem, maybe they needed more people, well, HR could bring new people in to handle it, the finance rep could say if they could afford it.
The 311 is the front face of it, it’s one of the mechanisms to collect the data, [and PhillyStat was supposed to learn from it and respond to it.]
Do you think that can come back and be improved?
There is still a lot of resistance from [City] Council, from Council staff people who have been here a long time. They have been here 15-20 years, and they feel threatened by the use [of 311]. The constituent service folks feel like they’re going to be made obsolete [because residents would call 311 instead of a Councilperson’s office].
But, you know, to 311’s discredit, their process of closing out requests was not being closed… so it created more of a headache for these people.
Like a pothole request would come in from a constituent to 311… 311 was closing out the complaint when it was sent to, say, the Streets Department, not when it was actually fixed. So, sure, we need to continue to refine it.
Who are some examples of people in Council who are opposing or slowing its use?
Well, I’m not going to get into that…. But some people do want to see it fail, so they can have that ‘See I told you so’ attitude, and so it’s hard to get funding.
How do you feel about it as it stands now?
My opinion, well, the overall purpose is good. It achieved a lot of the things we wanted it to. It needs to be complimented by PhillyStat to be the management tool that we envisioned it being [though].
What are some actionable steps to make it better?
Well, the economy [needs to] improve to better staff it. We need better technology. We had to go… well, not on the cheap. If you wanted a Maserati… and you end up buying a Buick. You didn’t go cheap, but you didn’t go where you should have. It works, and you got what you could afford.
And, really, with technology, well, six months later, the new iPhone is out. And when you look at the kind of IT needs that you need at the government level, it’s not the new iPhone. It takes, well, it can take two years, from the RFP, to implementation and strategy to the use, and by then, something new is there.
Government IT in general is problematic. even business, if you make a mistake, you’re screwed.
[Legislative aide Sachdev: “The tech wasn’t ready for the call volume. I don’t think 311 is happy with the tech.”]
But what is something that could be resolved today?
…This is a whack at a small group of employees, not most.
Some of them liked where they were [before 311 implementation]. That’s the difference between Chicago, Houston and here. In an effort to not put people out of work, we consolidated services.
So the Street Department call takers and the health department call takers and all these other folks got put into this new system, including City Hall operators and all the other stuff, and some of them were excited and interested and wanted to learn, and some of them were ‘Why are you doing this to me? I was happy in my little corner, doing my little thing and now I have to work call after call after call, and somebody’s counting them and somebody’s tracking them, and I don’t like it.’
And I didn’t sense that all in Chicago or Houston. Now maybe they put on a happy face when they get visitors, but it sure seemed like they were into it. Now go down to Philly 311 and you’ll find some people who are into what they’re doing , but you’re also going to some who will still roll their eyes at you.
..You need to train the person right and they need to have the right personality. ..That’s how this starts to have impact.