No more excuses

April 16, 2002

IN 1996, Baltimore was the first U.S. city to adopt 311 as the number for non-emergency police calls. The reason: Roughly 60 percent of 911 calls in the city did not deal with life-or-death situations at all. Some people would even call to find out the starting time of baseball games.

Baltimore has spent $2.6 million to revamp its 311 setup, making the number now the one-stop call center for all city services. Thirty-seven customer service agents staff it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sitting before flickering computer consoles in the same room at the police headquarters where emergency calls are answered.

"The private sector has known about this all along. This is what customer service is all about," says Elliot H. Schlanger, the city's chief information officer.

As in corporate call centers, 311 callers are assigned a tracking number. "Now there's a record of what you ask for and who is supposed to do the work," Mr. Schlanger said.

This is the way modern-day government should work. With its automated features and tracking capability, the call center removes bureaucratic passing-the-buck and other excuses for inaction.

CitiTrack, as the new system is called, links to another of Mayor Martin O'Malley's innovations, the CitiStat process of regular departmental performance reviews.

CitiTrack is welcome, its promise obvious. If the municipal delivery system now fails, City Hall has no one else to blame but its own ineptitude.

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