To hear City Councilman Jim Kenney tell it, a simple phone number - 311 - has the potential to revolutionize the way city government works.
The idea is this: a nonemergency call center that people could dial whenever they needed information or city services. The phone would be answered by a live human being, and the calls would be tracked by sophisticated software that would give the city a wealth of new data that managers could mine to identify problems and find efficiencies.
"I think that this in full swing would change the way people look at their government," said Kenney, who released a detailed plan for the system yesterday.
Operators would have the sort of basic information at their fingertips - garbage-collection days, for instance, or the hours of a local rec center - that now can be so difficult to find.
But the call center would also take detailed reports on problems that residents and businesses want fixed: say, a pothole, an abandoned car, or a request for a new stop sign. A service ticket would be issued for each request, and residents would be able to call back to track the progress of their complaint.
Using the same system, managers in city departments would be able to see how quickly (or slowly) problems were resolved. They could also spot trends - poor garbage collection along a single route, for instance - leading in theory to greater employee accountability.
Kenney compared it to the CompStat crime-tracking system that police jurisdictions nationwide now use to quickly adapt to crime trends.
It's not a new idea. Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, New York and other cities have similar systems. The Street administration bandied the notion several years ago, but ultimately passed on it after concluding that 311 systems can lead to higher costs by increasing the demands on city government.
"People don't want to just complain, they want results," said Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff. "You have to make sure you have the capacity to service the request. You have to have the money in the budget to fill the potholes; the department needs enough people to go out and do the work."
But Kenney is hoping that the next mayor will embrace the proposal, which he plans to have waiting on the mayor's desk as the new administration takes office.
Kenney could also face some opposition from his colleagues on City Council. District Council members - who represent specific areas of the city - now serve in many ways as mini-311 centers of their own, fielding complaints from constituents and serving as guides through the wilds of the city's bureaucracy.
Would voters appreciate their local Council member as much in a 311 world?
"You shouldn't have to go to your district Council person to get graffiti removed. You just shouldn't," Kenney said.
Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or email@example.com.