BY SHEER volume, Baltimore's 311 number for city services is a smashing success. Just last month, it handled some 64,000 calls about city services and 42,000 nuisance complaints, freeing the 911 police and fire number to concentrate on 110,000 true emergencies.
Cities around the country are copying the setup, the latest being New York. But after eight months of full-time operation, Baltimore must do more to ensure that the city's service delivery matches the promise of 311.
Irene Smith, a lawyer at the Community Law Center, told a recent City Council hearing that it took eight months of persistent 311 calls for her to get a derelict minivan removed from Reservoir Hill. Instead of action, she got excuses, red tape and runaround.
A spokesman for Homewood Realty Inc. says his company is in the midst of a similar situation. Despite daily 311 complaints since Nov. 18, nothing has been done about a burst pipe inside a vacant city-owned house at 1823 N. Wolfe St. that is flooding neighboring basements.
The common denominator in both instances is that overlapping bureaucratic responsibilities make it easy for city agencies to pass the buck. This is a decades-old problem, and unless it is eradicated, it could defeat the purpose of 311.
Another weakness of the 311 response system is that it confuses bureaucratic action with results. For example, it considers a code violation "abated" when a citation is issued, although that piece of paper may in fact produce no improvement in the situation.
These glaring shortcomings must be corrected promptly.
Mayor Martin O'Malley advises patience.
"I never promised perfect when I ran for this job, but I did promise constant improvement, and that's what this system allows us to do," he said. "It's better now than it was eight months ago, and eight months from now it will be even better."
That's fair enough. When 311 started as a nonemergency police number in 1996, Baltimore was the first city to experiment with it. Five months later, President Clinton endorsed the idea for nationwide adoption.
Under Mayor O'Malley, the expanded 311 became one of the critical measuring devices for CitiStat, which assesses agency performance. CitiStat has received lots of publicity and is copied in other cities. But if it measures only bureaucratic outcomes, instead of real results, its value as a governing tool is compromised.
Administrators of the 311 system know this. They monitor cases with the longest abatement times. They also make random calls to complainants to confirm that action indeed was taken. With thousands of complaints every day, quality control is difficult.
Yet without improvements, 311 will never live up to its potential. That's why its kinks need to be repaired quickly.