Report: L.A.'s city service hotline cost more, performed worse

Report: L.A.'s city service hotline cost more, performed worse
311 operators answer hundreds of calls from residents all over Los Angeles in City Hall East. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Angelenos trying to get information through City Hall's main service hotline have faced longer waits than residents of other large cities -- and the cost for each answered call is higher, according to a new audit.

But the department responsible for the 311 phone service said it has made major improvements in the operation since auditors examined the service, including sharply reducing wait times for callers.


City Controller Ron Galperin, whose office prepared the audit, urged the city to consider shifting control of the help line to the mayor's office or another city agency.

The department "can pick up the call," Galperin said. "But they don't have the ability to tell Sanitation what to do, or to get the streetlights fixed more quickly ... The point is to get the problem solved."

The 311 system is supposed to serve as a clearinghouse for residents' questions and service requests, such as cleaning up graffiti or trash. Nearly 670,000 calls were answered during the last fiscal year. The city last year also launched a 311 mobile app that has handled more than 49,000 requests.

But Los Angeles' system appears to perform poorly compared with those of other big cities, Galperin wrote. The audit looked at the service for the 12-month period that ended June 30, 2013.

Angelenos waited to reach an operator an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds -- three and a half times the rate for callers in other big cities, the audit found. Nearly a third of calls were abandoned before someone answered, compared with 22% among other cities examined.

And the service is available for fewer hours -- 63 hours a week in Los Angeles, compared with an average of 135 hours in other big cities, including San Francisco, Houston and New York City.

When Angelenos did reach an operator, their calls were transferred to another department nearly 45% of the time because the operator couldn't answer their question or handle their request. In New York City, by contrast, only 10% of calls were transferred, according to the report.

Los Angeles spent more -- an average of $6.39 -- for each answered call, compared with costs ranging from $2.79 to $6.13 in other cities studied, the audit found.

The Information Technology Agency, which runs the system, said recent improvements have reduced caller wait times to 41 seconds this year -- and as low as 24 seconds last month. Department general manager Steve Reneker said that last month, only 4.6% of calls were abandoned.

Under Mayor Eric Garcetti, the department has started using new systems to track its performance, and plans are underway to install a new computer system that will allow its operators to handle more requests instead of sending them elsewhere, Reneker said.

Reneker added that the higher costs per call stemmed, in part, from having many employees on workers' compensation or medical leave, leaving the department paying for workers who weren't on the job. Business hours were downsized during the recession, as its staff shrunk from more than 70 to roughly 30.

The audit "identified a lot of issues that we already know about," Reneker said. "We've made tremendous strides in correcting a lot of those deficiencies."

Galperin also recommended that the city consider consolidating call centers scattered through some agencies, as New York has done. Though 311 is meant to be a one-stop shop for routine questions and requests, Los Angeles still has at least nine separate call centers, according to the audit.

The report also recommended beefing up training for 311 operators so that they can handle a wider range of requests.