Updated October 21: Rahm has dropped the plan to privatize 311, but explained that the offer was less about saving $1 million annually than it was to upgrade the tech. I still don’t think it was explained well enough – or challenged enough by City Council – why a privatization was the “only” way to get an upgrade worth $25-50 million, or why the upgrade would cost that much. Then, there’s still the open question as to what happened to the RFP in 2014, looking for bidders to create a new 311 system. I’m also curious if any of the nascent civic-oriented CRM and Open311 startups would have a reasonable chance at responding to an RFP or privatization effort, or if the RFP process would largely exclude new or small players.
Last week, for budget “season” in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed privatizing the 311 system – where citizens and aldermen request services from any city department, and citizens get information about city services – as a way to pay for the technology upgrade the system desperately needs.
There are over 300 service request types (codes), of which many are available to the public (the rest being for internal or aldermanic use). Here’s the full list of codes and the department that administers or manages the requests.
The topic of analyzing 311 data came up tonight at ChiHackNight, and I talked to a DePaul University Student interested in using their predictive analytics study on this rich (maybe) dataset.
I brought them up to speed on the changes made to the 311 technology system and created this “status” document to demonstrate the wild and whacky year of changes in 2012, and the stagnation since then. I’m publishing this because I also want to collect ideas and feedback about things I don’t know regarding the progress in redeveloping the tech that powers Chicago’s 311.
311 technology chronology
Code for America fellows come to Chicago and work with DoIT to develop 13 service request types (codes) for Open311, a layer on 311 that enables third-party apps to submit new service requests – with photos. See what other cities have adopted Open311.
I pled with the Chief Technology Officer at the time, John Tolva, holding a new position in the mayor’s office, to enable 5 of the bicycle and pedestrian-related codes in the Open311 system, so that I can build apps for Grid Chicago, and later, Streetsblog Chicago, readers to request city services that impact the safety and quality around walking and biking.
Ben Sheldon, one of the four Code for America fellows, made SuperMayor.io, and it’s one of the few Open311-based apps that’s still working (most of the apps linked to from this Smart Chicago Collaborative blog post are dead).
The City of Chicago releases an RFP to remake the 311 system (September). One aspect of operating the system I noticed that better tech could probably have a big impact on is the number of service request taken by phone: 74%!
Companies respond to the RFP (I assume). Are these responses hosted anywhere? Smart Chicago Collaborative made Chicago Works For You, a dashboard that’s also the only Chicago + Open311 map.
The RFP never made it past “Step 4” in the Bid Tracker, or, “Short List Determination”. The Bid Tracker is really unhelpful at this point, though, because it doesn’t mark the date at which Step 4 was reached.
Mayor Emanuel announces a proposal to privatize the 311 system, including the technology and the staff, to be able to pay for the tech upgrade. Emanuel says it would save the city about $1 million annually.
Aldermen don’t like this. While I haven’t read up on their specific complaints, I believe they have to do with the quality of the jobs that would exist under a private operator.
Currently the 73** employees work for the city and have benefits like healthcare and probably some retirement assistance. The new jobs could be, well, anything, and if they’re like other call centers, probably pay less and could have worse benefits.
There’s also the question of whether anyone else can actually do the same (or better) job for less money (a question that 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer raised). That means someone other than people in the mayor’s office need to be able to get a detailed look at the expenses of the 311 call center and tech.
Andy Shaw questions why the privatization proposal is coming up now: “The timing is odd because the administration recently sent an enlightened privatization ordinance to the Council for approval, so it’s logical for the city to wait until it’s analyzed, and then adopted, before embarking on new privatization initiatives” and “the ordinance has 40 aldermanic co-sponsors but hasn’t been heard in committee yet, so it’s premature to consider privatizing 3-1-1”.
Shaw suggests using the do-nothing legally-separate-entity Chicago Infrastructure Trust to upgrade the service. (The new board members Emanuel installed this year have “set an ambitious goal”, Shaw said, to convert the city’s streetlights to something more energy efficient. It would likely work by splitting the cost savings with a private contractor.
** The city’s salary dataset on the open data portal lists 56 employees with “311” in the job title. They collectively earn $3,519,732.00 annually.
Thank you to Derek Eder, Eric Sherman, George Nakhleh, and Dan O’Neil for the discussion and links.
Updated Monday, Oct. 12 to add quotes from Better Government Association’s Andy Shaw (a former investigative reporter for a TV station).