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Chicago Mayor Daley's greatest legacy – and gift to Rahm Emanuel

As Rahm Emanuel takes office in Chicago today, he has big shoes to fill. Mayor Daley will be remembered for many bold reforms, but his greatest imprint is the phone number 311. It revolutionized citizen access to city government and services delivery in Chicago – and the US.

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Today, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley will walk out of his office for the last time. He hands the keys over to Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel after more than 22 years in office. And the debate over his legacy is now in full force.

Will Mr. Daley be most remembered for his takeover of public schools in 1995? Or will it be his imprint on Chicago’s physical infrastructure – creating scores of new schools, libraries, and parks, including the world-renowned Millennium Park? To be sure, these achievements are noteworthy. But, most will miss his greatest accomplishment: Mayor Daley was the father of 3-1-1.

The phone number 311 transformed not only how Chicagoans interact with their city government – but has fundamentally changed how residents in large US cities access local government, dramatically impacting services delivery.

The birth of 311

In 1999, Daley created Chicago’s 311 system as the central repository for all information, complaints, and service requests from residents – serving as the tracking unit of city operations and work orders. The new system made it simple for residents to access services and ultimately improved the efficiency and productivity of city work crews.

Technically, Baltimore was the first city to use the 311 number in 1996, but it was a non-emergency crime number to help offload 911 calls. Mayor Daley took the 311 idea and rolled it out to all city services, not just nonemergency crime. Residents were encouraged to call both when their car was broken into and when their car hit a pothole.

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How 311 transformed Chicago

It was transformational for Chicago. Prior to 311, if your trash wasn’t picked up, you called your alderman’s office. 311 restructured the relationship and the power balance of delivering city services. Prior to calling 311, if you had a problem with a cab driver or a broken street sign, you needed a PhD in public administration to figure out which agency would handle your complaint.

With 311, residents easily accessed city government and gave the mayor information about what services they needed in their neighborhoods. Centralizing the request intake facilitated better focus on service delivery and prioritization. Daley was “crowd sourcing” before anyone knew what that meant.

Budgeting discussions with departments fundamentally changed after 311. The number of calls became a proxy for demand for services and a starting point to talk about what the city is “buying” in service levels for residents. With more and better data, departments found they had nowhere to hide on delivering services. New 311 metrics tracked the amount of time it took to complete requests. Daley often used 311 reports to send “blue note” memos to department heads questioning why particular services were lagging.

How 311 stopped West Nile virus

Perhaps the best example of how 311 was most effectively used as a crowd-sourcing tool was its role in effectively eliminating the West Nile virus in Chicago. Many may remember the deadly 2002 outbreak of the disease in the US, carried by mosquitoes, which killed 284 people, with 22 of those deaths in Chicago. When the outbreak continued into 2003, the disease killed 264 across the country; however, there were zero fatalities in Chicago. The city’s 311 system was used to stop the West Nile virus in its tracks.

Here’s how: West Nile infections led to a dramatic uptick in dead birds being called into 311. Birds are even more susceptible to the disease than humans. Further, the dead bird calls were coming in from specific neighborhoods. The city mapped the 311 dead bird complaints to target which blocks to take action against the mosquito population by spraying insecticides, removing standing water, and treating catch basins with larvicide that eliminated mosquito breeding. 311 is a powerful tool that helped the city use scarce resources for maximum impact. In this case, it even helped the city quickly stop West Nile.

A model now used in 70 major US cities

The service model of 311 is also affirmed by the number of cities that embrace it. Most major US cities – now more than 70, from New York to Los Angeles – use 311 to track and respond to service requests. The idea has also spread internationally, with Stockholm, Sweden, and cities in Finland customizing a version of 311 for residents.

Many books will be written about Mayor Daley’s “greatest achievements” in taking over the public schools and greening the city, but all mayors know their greatness is judged everyday by their ability to deliver on the small stuff – fixing potholes and picking up the trash. And as the father of 311, Daley redefined the standard for how all mayors deliver on that small stuff.

Mr. Emanuel has a high bar to live up to leading “the city that works,” but his job has been made a whole lot easier because of his predecessor’s creation of 311. On his first day in office, instead of the office keys, Emanuel would be very wise to ask for the 311 call-dashboard.

Lydia Amerson Murray is an associate principal at the Civic Consulting Alliance. Ms. Murray served two tours of duty as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley. She previously served for two years as chief of staff for president of the Chicago Transit Authority. Murray as also served as director of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Welfare-to-Work program and director of the Mayor’s Action Center and assistant commissioner for Strategic Planning of Housing, Preservation and Development under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City.

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