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Emanuel wants to privatize Chicago’s 311 non-emergency system

It was a throwaway line that most aldermen might have missed in a budget address packed with bad news. But it has the potential to impact not only 70 city jobs, but also how quickly more than 3 million annual calls for city service get answered.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to outsource operations at Chicago’s 311 non-emergency center.

The 311 center has handled more and more calls each year as Chicago has adjusted to a dramatic change in 911 dispatch. The aim is to free up police officers to respond to the most serious crimes by diverting lower-priority calls to 311 or persuading crime victims to file their reports online.

During a meeting Tuesday with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Emanuel said the decision to privatize has less to do with the $1 million in annual savings and more to do with capital needs of what was once a ground-breaking 311 system.

“I said that nothing was walled off from reform. I believe privatizing it, bringing in other workers would be the right thing to do. But, more importantly, over the next three years, there’s about $40 million to $50 million in capital investment we have to make to modernize it. Doing it with a private operator is a better way to do it. We don’t have that type of resources, so I’m being upfront about it,” the mayor said.

“It’s not about the $1 million today or the $1 million tomorrow. It is about the $40 million or $50 million over the next three years that we don’t have, and we’re going to need if we’re going to have a 21st century 311 system,” he said. “Given Chicago inaugurated the 311 system, I want to keep it on the cutting edge and a private operator can actually help us do that.”

Budget Director Alex Holt said the privatization of Chicago’s 311 will begin with a request-for-proposals to test the market.

“There are lots of privatized call centers in local government, including some 311 systems. New York City uses a private company to do their peak and after-hours call volume,” Holt said.

“We’ve got a very old system. We need to invest in new technology. We need to invest in new ways for people to communicate with us to generate not only information that we need, but also to generate service requests. We want to see what the options are.”

Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who supported vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over Emanuel, said he’s concerned about the mayor’s outsourcing plan — and not just because he has a bad taste in his mouth from the roundly despised deal that privatized Chicago parking meters.

“I want to make sure we protect wages. I want to make sure we protect workers’ rights. Any time you do any sort of privatization, you want to see what kind of impact it has on the city workforce,” Munoz said.

“We’ve done privatizations in the past. And some of have gone good and some have gone bad. Are we outsourcing to where? Who’s getting the jobs? Right now, these are city residents. Why are we disinvesting in the city?”

Shortly after taking office, Emanuel implemented a tracking system to make calling 311 to get a pothole filled or a tree trimmed more like using FedEx to send a package.

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The Chicago Sun-Times reported last year that Emanuel was forging ahead with his plan to take it to the next level, by turning 311 into more of a two-way street in a way that could benefit him politically. One year after issuing an RFP to develop “constituent relationship management modernization software” for a 311 system virtually unchanged since its launch 15 years ago, City Hall narrowed the competition to two and began contract talks with both bidders.

A winner was supposed to be chosen by Dec. 31, 2014, paving the way for the long-awaited upgrade to begin early this year. But not before a “comprehensive public engagement strategy” that could have had political side benefits for a mayor in the middle of a difficult re-election campaign.

To ensure that the 311 overhaul was tailored to “meet the needs” of Chicago residents, the plan called for City Hall to conduct a series of “listening sessions” across the city.  Chicagoans were also invited to submit suggestions to Open311@cityofchicago.org.

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 non-emergencies.

The non-emergency 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 Civic Federation has proposed privatizing 311. A report commissioned by Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle proposed merging 311 with Cook County’s main information number.