New York dialing up 311 help line

In about two months, New Yorkers with questions about city services — ranging from heating to parking to taxes — will be able to dial 311 rather than thumb through the 11-page directory of city phone numbers.

New York City maintains more than 40 help lines, including 14 for public safety, 11 for health and human services, eight for infrastructure, regulatory and community services, and seven for business affairs and waste management. With the 311 system, employees from the different help desks would be housed in one facility and cross-trained to answer a wide variety of questions or they could at least could direct questions to the appropriate individual or agency, said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In a Dec. 4 address at the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council's sixth annual conference, Bloomberg said the city plans to have the 311 service up and running by late January or mid-February. It's important that citizens get easy access to the services they pay for, he said, adding that the city spends $42 billion a year on services to the public.

He said the around-the-clock system would also try to accommodate as many different languages spoken by its citizens as possible. New York City has about 8 million people, and about 40 percent of them are foreign born, representing at least 120 languages, he said.

"It's our responsibility to be there," he said. "Customer service is about being available when a customer needs it."

New York City chief information officer Gino Menchini, who also heads the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, said the city is using Siebel Systems Inc.'s customer relationship management product, which also helps manage workflow and electronically routes requests. He said the system would better enable officials to understand where calls are coming from, know what is most commonly asked, and speed up service.

Calls eventually would be integrated with the city's geographic information system. That would help city officials see a problem if calls are coming in from one particular area and possibly do some outreach there, he said. The city also will track how long it will take to complete a service request.

"The need for this type of function ranked extremely high -- just below emergency services," Menchini said, citing a recent survey.

The city has been planning to implement 311, which is a toll call, since January 2002. The city also has established a phone number — (212) NEW-YORK — for callers outside the city.

The Federal Communications Commission designated 311 as a non-emergency number for government services in 1997. Nationwide, there are at least 20 cities who have implemented or in the process of installing the service.


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