Hotline Operator - Photo courtesy of Charajeet Dhiman on Unsplash

The future operation of Los Angeles County’s 211 resident-assistance hotline was left in question Tuesday when a proposed $67.2 million contract with a private company to take over management of the service failed to generate enough support among the Board of Supervisors.

After a lengthy debate, the proposed contract with Deloitte Consulting was defeated on a 2-2 vote, with Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger opposing the contract, and Supervisor Hilda Solis abstaining.

The proposed contract with Deloitte Consulting was a seven-year deal, with options for three, one-year extensions totaling another $27.4 million. County officials billed it as a much-needed upgrade for a four-decade-old service that provides 480,000 callers per year with assistance on an array of inquiries, referrals to applicable county health, human and social services and basic information residents “need to navigate life in Los Angeles.”

The service has been operated since its inception in 1981 by a nonprofit group known as “211 LA.” That group’s contract with the county, however, expires at the end of the year. A bidding process led the county to select Deloitte as the proposed new operator of the service.

The selection led to a wave of protests from 211 LA officials and employees, some of whom called into the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. One warned the board that Deloitte is a for-profit company that will act on behalf of “shareholders, not L.A. County residents.”

“Your constituents deserve better. Deloitte is not the answer,” one caller said.

Others contended that Deloitte’s service will be largely automated, meaning callers will be greeted by a computer voice, rather than an actual person.

“People need a human touch, not an automated system,” one caller told the board, noting that “a recorded message can’t check if an address is under evacuation.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Holly Mitchell said, however, the contract with Deloitte included a provision that “all calls will be answered by a live person, and it will only be directed to the automated system if appropriate.”

Mitchell also noted that the existing 211 LA nonprofit uses an automated system. She said she personally called the 211 line and her call was answered by an automated system, and a member of her staff called the line Tuesday, and was also met by an automated system.

“I don’t think it’s fair (to say) that only Deloitte is going to use an automated system, when (211 LA) does,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also said the contract with Deloitte included provisions that call for the company to hire any qualified workers who are displaced from the nonprofit 211 LA due to loss of the contract. The Deloitte contract also included a local-hiring requirement.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the nonprofit organization has long held a sole-source contract to operate the information line, and she said as far back as 2016, supervisors’ offices were receiving complaints about the level of service being offered by the current contractor.

Those complaints led to the initiation of the bidding process, which ultimately led to the selection of Deloitte.

Hahn said she believes the 211 LA nonprofit has a long history of operating the line, and any problems they have can be fixed.

“It’s 211 LA’s core mission to serve our residents here in L.A. County,” Hahn said. “While maybe they’ve had some problems, in my opinion, I don’t think anyone can do it as well as they have. They’re local. They’re homegrown. And they hire people from our communities.”

Critics of the Deloitte contract have held multiple rallies in recent weeks to oppose the move. Several dozen people took part in a protest Monday in downtown Los Angeles.

Some critics have also noted that Deloitte operated a phone center for the state Employment Development Department during the COVID-19 pandemic — a system that led to rampant complaints from out-of-work residents unable to get information about the status of their unemployment checks.

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