Before 1999, Chicago's city services were accessible through a series of cumbersome phone numbers such as 312-744-CAPS for community policing, 312-734-1234 for graffiti removal, etc. An area code split which required even more 10-digit dialing adding further complications for residents, who were finding it increasingly difficult to access the services to which they were entitled.
After a year of research, in January 1999 the City implemented a new 311 system as an access portal to all city services and non-emergency police services, thereby eliminating a number of smaller call centers. Chicago residents can now call 311--24 hours a day, seven days a week--to report service needs, check the status of previous service requests, obtain information regarding City programs or events, and file police reports. The new system also offers the option to make requests through Aldermanic offices, community-policing offices within each police district, and remote city department facilities. In addition, the system is fully transparent and provides residents the ability to track the progress of their complaints. By combining one easy-to-remember number, a staff of highly trained operators, and enterprise-wide software that automatically routes service requests to the proper department, Chicago has worked to make city government more effective.
The 311 system also lets the City oversee the performance and efficiency of individual departments through the system's regular reports. Departments can query the system and provide crews with work order information in a timelier manner. City officials can also acquire a broader perspective on a challenge by tracking complaints. For example, in a recent outbreak of West Nile Virus, City managers used reports on "Dead Animals" to track the spread and concentration of the virus.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the system however, is in the fact that the City uses it to predict and prevent recurring challenges. For example, in August of 2001, during a heavy rainstorm the Department of Sewers used "Water in the Basement" reports to pinpoint areas of heavy flooding and adjust the sewer system. During a similar storm the next summer, the Department of Sewers was prepared: it adjusted the sewer system before the flooding thereby preventing the majority of potential "Water in the Basement" reports. In another example, City inspectors were able to use 311 reports to identify landlords with a history of "No Heat Complaints." By warning these landlords in the autumn, the city is able to help prevent this problem before any tenant even needed the heat.
As the system has become more widely known through the City's aggressive advertising campaign "Burning building? call 911, Burning question? call 311" the number of citizens calling has also increased from 900,000 in 1999 to nearly 3 million in 2002. Of the 40,000 callers in 2002 whose requests led to the creation of a work order, (abandoned cars, trash pick-up, etc.), each received a letter thanking them for the call and asking if the service was completed satisfactorily, and each letter was signed by both the Mayor and the caller's Alderman.
Chicago's 311 system has improved the City's customer service, productivity, crisis management and accountability. While other cities, such as Baltimore, currently possess a 311 system, Chicago's innovative use of the system to improve city services is unique.