As Simon Newton rides his bike along Houston’s residential streets and major thoroughfares, he often stops to report blocked bike lanes and road or sidewalk obstructions to the city’s 311 department.
After submitting service requests, however, “it’s very opaque,” Newton said.
He said he frequently does not hear back from the city until his reports have been closed, sometimes when no action has been taken to remedy the issue.
“In the last year or so, what I realized is you may as well report stuff, even if nothing gets done, because there’s something in the system, Newton said.
“I’m not expecting Houston to fix all my problems,” he added. “There’s an infinite number of problems here. So, I just put things in.”
Houston’s 311 system, the city’s forward-facing customer service department, was launched by former mayor Lee Brown’s administration in 2001. Its purpose was three-fold: divert non-emergency calls from the 911 system, eliminate dozens of existing customer service lines, and serve as a tool to improve accountability among city workers tasked with resolving citizen complaints or addressing calls for service.
Today, the office fields roughly 3,200 calls a day, Assistant Director of Administration and Regulatory Affairs Charles Jackson said. The department’s role is part of a much larger system than Houstonians may realize.
Misconceptions about Houston 311
There are three major misunderstandings about 311, Jackson said.
The first is that residents think 311 employees are the ones carrying out service requests.
“People think that we pick up the trash, Jackson said. “People think that we fill the potholes.”
The reality is that 311 connects residents to various city departments that then send their own employees to address issues and carry out service requests.
The second misconception, Jackson said, is that 311 has authority over other city departments.
“All I can do is ask a department to re-investigate something, or to look at something,” he said. “I can’t force them to do anything.”
The final misunderstanding is that 311 employees are the ones closing out service requests, Jackson said. That job actually is performed by employees within the department tasked with addressing the citizen report.
“We totally understand why the customer doesn’t care whether 311 closed it or not,” he said. “But we do try to educate them that 311 — the operator that you’re talking to, the agent you’re talking to — did not close your case.”
What happens when you contact 311?
To start, there are several ways to submit a service request, Jackson said.
Residents can use the three-digit number to call the department when they are within city limits, but complaints also can be submitted through 311’s online portal, or using a mobile app for Apple and Android devices.
Requests are routed to one of the city’s 23 departments for investigation and, if possible, remedy.
Jackson recommends Houstonians save the complaint number and include an email address when submitting a request.
When an email is included in a service request, updates about that complaint automatically are sent to that address. Having a complaint number allows residents to track a service request’s progress online using the city’s 311 website.
Residents who think their request was closed without being resolved can reach out to 311 with the original complaint number to create an escalated request. That prompts the department to re-investigate the claim.
Residents curious about 311 results can find most of its service request data published on the city’s website, Jackson said. The department tracks years of request data and top service requests each month. It also has a webpage that breaks down a single day’s service requests.
Jackson said he knows residents often call 311 when something has gone wrong, but wants Houstonians to know the department is doing its best to help.
“People often think of 311 as the complaint center for the city,” he said. “We think of it as the solution center.”