Los Angeles, CA — Los Angeles County is about to make a huge mistake — one that threatens to abandon essential services for families and individuals in favor of a giant private corporation with a track record of failure.
With very little public notice, Los Angeles County leadership is poised to turn over the County’s 2-1-1 hotline, which connects residents to the social services they need, to a company called Deloitte, a for-profit consulting firm.
2-1-1 is vital infrastructure for our county that requires knowledgeable, culturally competent operators to fulfill its mission of connecting residents in need to key safety net services and resources. For decades, the 2-1-1 hotline has been operated by a non-profit organization, 211 LA, where I serve on the board. Right now, 211 LA employs highly trained operators who help individuals and families with issues like elder care, housing, hate incidents, domestic violence, food insecurity and mental health crises.
It’s no surprise that throughout California, most counties are supporting and integrating their 2-1-1 agencies ever more deeply into their social service networks, with great success. 2-1-1 is a low-cost, high-return investment.
But unfortunately, Los Angeles County has for the last 15 years been underfunding 211 LA, its 2-1-1 agency. Even as 211 LA has invested in new technology and expanded its services, the county has not given the agency a significant boost in budget.
In fact, instead of simply providing 211 LA with the funds necessary to meet the massive need that exists in our neighborhoods, the county last year chose to put out a bid for a new service provider.
This contracting process was flawed from the start. The county had commissioned a study to help determine a direction for 2-1-1 services, but they never published the results. The county promised to seek input from community stakeholders and local organizations, but they never did so. The county then chose to marginalize 2-1-1 with a severely limited scope of work and increased reliance on chatbots and automation, instead of investing in what has worked everywhere else.
Even after a broken process, it boggles the mind that the county would choose Deloitte to be the new 211 provider. According to Capital Public Radio, Deloitte in 2020 “earned $55 million for running a call center that has left millions of unemployed Californians on hold for hours — often with no answer — struggling to access their benefits.” This scandal at California’s Employment Development Department should have been enough by itself to disqualify Deloitte from even being considered.
By its own admission, Deloitte has never run a 2-1-1 call center, which is significantly more complex than processing unemployment claims. Deloitte doesn’t employ anyone in California qualified to do this work, and the company won’t have the gold-standard industry accreditation for at least another two years, if at all.
Further, Deloitte’s big idea for LA County’s 2-1-1 service relies heavily on chatbots, automated call answering, and technology for technology’s sake. There is a place for AI, but any experienced 2-1-1 provider can tell you that technology alone can only do so much. A chatbot will never be able to have a sensitive conversation with a distressed individual. An algorithm can’t help a caller understand the complex set of factors leading to their crisis or recommend solutions to the root causes of their issues. Deloitte’s takeover is a train wreck in the making.
211 LA has a better vision. Of course, technology like texting, chatting, apps and websites have a place in 2-1-1 services — but at its core, 2-1-1 means answering the phone, providing human contact to people in need and compassionately and intelligently connecting them to services to solve their problems. In other counties, 2-1-1 agencies are going beyond that, and actually serving as case managers with follow-up communications so that people are empowered to solve their challenges and connect to services. There’s no reason we can’t do the same here in LA County.
For 211 LA, the answer is relatively simple: follow the best practices around the state, properly fund the agency so that it has the people necessary to answer all calls within a reasonable time, and better publicize the existence of the service.
Fortunately, there’s still time to reverse this decision. I’m urging the Board of Supervisors to reject the county’s new contract for Deloitte when it comes to them for approval and instead recommit to a personalized, community-based and holistic approach to essential services in LA County. Together, we can build a safety net that works and that our county can be proud of.
Victoria Stratman, President of the 211 LA County Board Of Directors