Garcia: City Hall does customer service? 

When it comes to providing easy phone access to city services in San Francisco, there has long been a deep disconnect.

Residents here have complained loudly about how difficult it is to reach certain agencies and officials, and the telephone maze for government departments seemed more like a system designed to keep callers from their intended destinations. Over the years, I have received so many calls from readers about how difficult it is to get through to some agencies that at one point I printed an emergency handbook for desperate citizens.

That should begin to change rather dramatically this week when San Francisco unveils its official entry in the centralized government information sweepstakes — the long-awaited 311 customer service center, a modern version of the lost art of call and response.

I toured the new 311 center last week with about 50 neighborhood and political activists who were given a preview of the agency’s goals by Mayor Gavin Newsom beforehand. Newsom is in wonk heaven over the system’s anticipated debut, which is not unexpected since he’s been pushing for it for years and San Francisco is one of the last big cities in America to get 311 online.

But playing catch-up in this case may have proved somewhat advantageous to San Francisco because it was able to learn from the mistakes of other municipalities about their 311 call systems, such as New York’s, where the city spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try and get 311 up and running almost overnight. And the city fathers there didn’t realize it would be seen as a customer complaint center, even though everyone knows New Yorkers complain more than anybody else.

San Francisco’s 311 system doesn’t officially go "live’’ until Thursday, though it’s been operational fora few months, and from my test calls in the last few days, appears to be running rather smoothly. The center’s staffers are brimming with computer-generated data and helpful tips. For example, I found out that from my house to get to the Hall of Justice, my Muni ticket will put me on three buses — the last on the 9X line — and after 40 years of riding Muni, I didn’t even know there was a 9X line. And although I don’t own a dog, I discovered that the fee schedule for getting a license differs depending on whether a fuzzy pal is "altered’’ or "unaltered.’’ And while that’s probably more information than I’ll ever need, I got it in one quick and polite call.

Much of the credit for the 311 system’s arrival goes to project manager Heidi Sieck, who has been living and breathing and analyzing call service centers for the last seven years (poor thing) — just about since the day Newsom came back from Chicago, where the Windy City had become the first place in the country to adopt a 311 customer service center. Sieck is so steeped in the ways of 311 that she said San Francisco can expect the volume of calls to be about "a call and a half per population,’’ which translates into about 1.2 million annually.

"But there is usually a spike that occurs at the beginning,’’ she said, which is one of the reasons officials here are gradually phasing in parts of the system while slowly phasing out existing department phone numbers.

Yet Newsom, ever optimistic about a new high-tech solution, is also a careful politician, which is why he’s predicting that the call center may be overwhelmed after residents discover its existence. And though he said there "won’t be a minute’’ that the customer center isn’t taking calls, he knows that there are going to be many minutes when there aren’t enough operators to take the calls quickly.

"Inevitably, there will be problems because that is the nature of any new system,’’ he said. "Already we know there’s been some dropped calls. But we’ll learn from our mistakes just as we learned from the mistakes of other cities doing this over the years.’’

Yet he also said he expects 311 to be an incredible help to officials by tracking the calls and requests for services, something he believes will be beneficial in creating a budget that reflects the wants and needs of the public.

I could tell you all sorts of other things about the new system, its 48 receiving stations, how it will serve as the backup 911 emergency number, how it will be giving information in more than 140 languages when fully operational, that it has more flat screens than Circuit City.

But this is a case where only one number really matters, and from now on you should be dialed in.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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