Three years ago, a City Council rebellion forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to shelve his controversial plan to privatize Chicago’s 311 nonemergency system.
Emanuel was forced to find another way to bankroll a sorely needed system upgrade after aldermen argued that services so pivotal to their residents must be provided by Chicagoans who know the city and its neighborhoods.
Now, the overhaul that will turn 311 into a two-way communications system is nearing completion. And the mayor who made it happen is touting the project for its ability to “revolutionize” the way city services are delivered.
“We’re gonna be able to not only personalize our service but help people manage their time better and have a more interactive experience rather than this amorphous call where you don’t have a tracking number. You don’t have the ability to know where your service is,” the mayor said.
“We’ll be able to communicate with people the way they communicate rather than the way we used to communicate,” he said. “It’s a massive change to our neighborhood services that residents rely on and have come to expect.”
The overhaul is being bankrolled by proceeds from the sale to a private developer of 18 acres of riverfront property near Goose Island that houses the city’s largest vehicle maintenance facility.
The new interactive system will not only allow Chicagoans to text their service requests, along with photos of the street light that’s out or the pothole that needs to be filled.
It’ll allow the city to text those same residents back to let them know when city crews will be dispatched to do the work and when the project is completed.
“If somebody wants to be there, they don’t know when we’re coming out. They don’t even know if they’ve called something in when we plan on servicing it. And we don’t tell them,” Emanuel said.
“If a parent opts in, we’re gonna be sending them, like a weekly message for parents of young kids: `Have you read to your child today?’ Don’t forget to take ’em to the library.’ That helps for a whole host of things. It’s very important. We will have a level of communications and transparency” we’ve never had before.
Emanuel was asked whether the role of Chicago’s 50 aldermen would be minimized by the interactive system.
“I don’t see this as a threat. It’s a really important tool for aldermen because they often get the complaints, [from constituents saying], `I called this. Where is it?’ And they have to call for them,” the mayor said.
“They’ll be able to actually check in on something the resident called [about], rather than say, `Here’s the address. Where is this?’ Today, that can be done through technology. It’ll help the aldermen do their job for their constituents.”
The mayor also pointed to the outdated technology that requires city employees to dispatch what he called “door-knockers” to let area residents know that street paving is about to start.
“I want the ability to say, `Here’s where we are in the work.’ We can give you an update on the schedule so you can check on the website or we can text it to you so you know the estimated time we’re gonna be done and, if you’re on a retail street, when business will return to normal,” Emanuel said.
“There’s a lot of things today that we can’t do that we need to be doing to help both the residents and the retail corridors of our neighborhoods.”
Danielle Dumerer, commissioner of the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, said the two-way 311 system will also have benefits for motorists determined to avoid the hefty fines and fees for violating the overnight parking ban that runs from Dec. 1 through April 1 on 107 miles of arterial streets across the city.
“We can definitely send out reminders to those who opt in,” Dumerer said.
In 1998, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley created the 311 system — at a cost of $4 million — to take the load off 911. At the time, 911 was handling 3.7 million calls a year, as many as 40 percent of them nonemergencies.
The nonemergency number was launched after a massive campaign to persuade Chicagoans to stop doing what 4,000 people did every day: call 911 about routine problems.
Emanuel’s transition report called for an “Open 311” system to provide an “easy and transparent way” for Chicagoans to submit and monitor their service requests on the internet.
The plan to turn 311 into more of a two-way street has been in the works for nearly five years.
The City Council rebellion on privatization slowed down the process. The new system is now expected to make its long-awaited debut by Dec. 31 — less then two months before the mayoral and aldermanic elections.