211 helps with creating communities in which “Every door is the right door”

If you work in the health and social services field or have ever looked for services in your community, you have likely run into some difficulties with finding the right service or program. Usually, you have to make multiple phone calls or you hear about a program that would have been helpful to you after the fact or you call neighboring communities or just get placed on hold a lot. Accessing information about services and programs can be tricky and sometimes contributes to individuals “falling through the cracks.”

The 211 initiative began in the late 1990s. This initiative was based on the idea that a centralized toll-free, easy-to-remember telephone number that leads to information about community, social, health, and government services could greatly benefit individuals, organizations, and government.

211 was started in the United States by the United Way in Atlanta in 1997. Since then, 211 services have launched in 47 states. Over 80% of Americans now live in areas served by 211.

In 2001, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) assigned 211 as an easy-to-remember, three-digit telephone number that would provide free, confidential, multilingual information and referral to a full range of community, social, and government services – twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2002, Toronto became the first Canadian community to offer residents 211 service. By 2005, 211 was available in parts of Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec. In 2010, 211 became available in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Currently, about 40 percent of Canada’s population has access to 211.

Some of the benefits of 211 include:

  • 24 hour access, 365 days a year
  • Reduced time looking for services by 211 caller
  • No menus, no machines – real people
  • Fewer inappropriate 911 calls
  • Less time spent by individuals in other organizations in responding to queries about services they do not offer or assisting callers in finding other appropriate services
  • Provides new information about needs and gaps in services that can help social planners, policy-makers, and funders make better decisions
  • Can help integrate services (i.e., overcome “silo” mentality) and reduce unnecessary duplication and overlap of services

In one study, the value of 211 benefits outweigh the total cost by 2.4 to 1. The study also noted that:

  • Over 60% of 211 callers are women
  • 80-90% of callers are adults and seniors
  • Approximately 11% of 211 calls are regarding financial assistance

You can read about the use of 211 data in community research and needs assessment in a publication released in February 2011 by the Horizons Policy Research Initiative called Canada 211: Leveraging Place-Based Human Services Data for Community Research and Needs Assessment. Also, take a look at the YouTube clip below about the launch of the 211 initiative in BC in 2010.