Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? Virginia’s 211 – Service or Crapshoot?

by James C. Sherlock

Sometimes the government of Virginia just makes you want to scream, cry, stay under the covers, whatever.

Navigating government and private social services agencies when you need help is hard, even more so a crisis. But it is way harder in Virginia than it needs to be.

To streamline the navigation process, the Federal Communications Commission in 2000 created 211, a number reserved for helplines that offer information or referrals to health and social support programs.

Given a layup, Virginia has clanged the ball off the bottom of the rim.


From the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) website

2-1-1 is an easy to remember phone number connecting people with free information on available community services. When you dial 2-1-1, a trained professional listens to your situation and suggests sources of help using one of the largest databases of health and human services in Virginia.

2-1-1 VIRGINIA is a service of the Virginia Department of Social Services provided in partnership with the Council of Community Services, The Planning Council, the United Way of Central Virginia, and the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.

When people contact 2-1-1 VIRGINIA, they are connected to a trained professional who will listen to inquirer situations and suggest sources of help using one of the largest health and human services databases in Virginia.

2-1-1 VIRGINIA operates 2 (Alliance of Information and Referral SystemsAIRS accredited contact centers. Trained staff include 18 AIRS Certified Resource Specialists, 3 AIRS Certified Resource Specialist—Database Curators and 1 RCCSP Certified Call Center Manager.

Virginia 211 fielded just under 100,000 calls between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021.

Concerning the 211 Virginia web site, the state offers, helpfully:

Neither 2-1-1 VIRGINIA nor any agency, officer, or employee of the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) warrants the accuracy, reliability or timeliness of any information published by this website, nor do they endorse any content, viewpoints, products or services linked from this website.

So we have a “service of the Virginia Department of Social Services” the results of which service are disowned by that agency. You can’t make that up.

The results really are hit or miss.

I entered “gifted education” and my zip code in Virginia Beach. I got three hits — in Manassas, Baltimore and Lynchburg. For “consumer complaints” about “building inspections and permit” using same zip code I got two — Covington and Galax.

Then I went all in for headline-relevant information.

I entered “COVID rent relief,” I was presented two Virginia Emergency notices. No agency or phone number. The accompanying map showed “Sentera (sic)” hospital. On Pacific Avenue near the oceanfront. I’ll notify the COPN staff at VDH.

When I drilled down into the notices, I was offered Virginia Legal Aid Society assistance if I was a tenant. If I was a landlord — there is online help but no phone number. The online landlord user guide to the portal is 23 pages long.

Good news was I was offered both print and email options for these helpful leads.

Who knows if the resource specialists on the phone lines use the same databases as the website — or the website itself? You would expect so, but this is Virginia.

There has been no Annual Report of Virginia 211 from VDSS since 2018-19.

The General Assembly reacts

In 2021 – 22 biennial budget funds the 211 service at $1.44 million in FY 21 and 2.17 million in FY 22.

Clearly there were constituent complaints.

The language in the Appropriations bill in the 2021 session viewed with some alarm that the 211 service (statewide Information and Referral System) was both incomplete and out of date. It was blunt about fixing it — but not changing it.

The Department of Social Services shall request that all state and local child-serving agencies within the Commonwealth be included in the Virginia Statewide Information and Referral System as well as any agency or entity that receives state general fund dollars and provides services to families and youth. The Secretary of Health and Human Resources, the Secretary of Education and Workforce, and the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security shall assist in this effort by requesting all affected agencies within their secretariats to submit information to the statewide Information and Referral System and ensure that such information is accurate and updated annually. Agencies shall also notify the Virginia Information and Referral System of any changes in services that may occur throughout the year.


Indiana, not surprisingly, does it better.

A nonprofit group, known as Indiana 211 Partnership, managed Indiana’s 211 services until last year, when state leaders integrated the 211 lines into the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA). The state now manages the telephone and text messaging system, as well as contracts and financing, data and analytics, human resources, training, and resource and referral management.

In addition to giving Hoosiers a single point of entry to a wide range of services and supports, moving 211 “in-house” has given state leaders a better understanding of the unmet needs of residents and enabled them to more closely coordinate between state agencies and community-based organizations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, Indiana expedited the integration of 211 and moved quickly to put the new helpline to work. It hired 56 community navigators and support staff from the Indiana 211 Partnership as state employees.

Indiana 211 took 20,000 calls per day during COVID compared with 14,200 calls per day prior to the pandemic. Indiana used the 211 line as a real-time barometer of how programs were working.

The biggest benefit was that the state could see directly what the needs were and react.

“When the vaccine became available, (Indiana) quickly trained 1,100 people, including 300 of the state’s librarians, to schedule vaccine appointments for any Indiana resident, making the process accessible to those who don’t have internet access or are flummoxed by online registration systems. Indiana 211 staff also made more than 100,000 outbound calls in support of the vaccination effort.”

Indiana 211 is now staffed by 48 community navigators.

In Indiana, the organizations that had run the helplines agreed with the state that it was better for the state to run them. The change was revenue neutral.  They expect to save money in the long run.

Indiana’s 211 director says government operation of 211 will help the state target its programs and more effectively partner with community organizations.

Indiana lessons for Virginia

First lesson, be proactive in optimizing 211 service and advertising it to the citizens. Look at the profound difference in use of 211 by citizens in the two states.

Virginia 211 fielded 100,000 calls in the first year of the pandemic. Virginia has 8.6 million people.

Indiana 211 fielded 20,000 calls a day in that same time frame. Indiana has 6.5 million people. That comes to just over one call for every citizen in Indiana in that year.

Which would you call a trusted government service?


The efficiencies gained by unifying contracts for individual programs under a single 211 umbrella and the data collected will better allow (Indiana) to match the supply of services to demand.

“So often we start with programs because it’s easy. Instead, we are building a data engine to understand what people need and how well programs work,” she says.”

Third, make it continually easier to find help:

Having a centralized, statewide system has certainly paid off during the pandemic, enabling leaders to quickly train agents to register people for COVID-19 vaccinations and clarify whether emergency supports were meeting needs. (Indiana’s) vision for the future is to strengthen the links between Indiana 211 and other state agencies, including the public health department, as well as with the state’s health care providers. (Indiana) is already working with the housing authority to help residents apply for the federal emergency rental assistance program..

Fourth, don’t wait for people to reach out.

(Indiana) also envisions a day when Indiana 211 navigators will reach out to at-risk populations proactively, such as elderly residents who may need supports to live independently. “Instead of waiting for people to come to us with a need, we can actually anticipate those needs in advance and build healthy people in healthy communities,”

Can’t anybody here play this game?

— Mets manager Casey Stengel, 1962

Virginia’s government will need to estimate if it has the competence to execute a 211 program like the remarkably effective and efficient one in Indiana.

VDSS may or may not be the place to start looking.