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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

San Francisco's 311 works 80% of the time

San Francisco's "311" program was created by the local city government as a one stop place for citizens to call 311 for information and to report issues. The "one stop" concept is used in many places, and when it runs well, becomes a very successful way to conduct business. A perfect example is SFSU's "OneStop" Student Services center where students can see the registrar, financial aid, bursar, and get their campus ID in one central area.

From my own personal experience from calling the 311 service line, I feel they are able to resolve about 80% of the questions and problems I call them about.

Here is a list of the successfully resolved and answers found in an appropriate amount of time:
  • Reporting potholes and they are patched-up within 3 days, in some cases, 24 hours! If you tell them it's a really bad pothole or a major Muni bus line keeps hitting it, they get on it quick.
  • Answering general Muni questions, like "when is the first bus of the day for X line?"
  • Removing a broken "Yield to Pedestrians" sign after the wind literally made it lean into the streets, and my car's mirror hit it, nearly making it fall off (I didn't sue).
  • A small rock slide happened near the Cliff House, and it was cleaned-up the next day. But nobody reported it for two weeks until I did.
  • Some cab driver flicked me off after cutting me off on Geary. The person on the phone was very pleasant to take the report.
So basically, when I ask very general questions or report problems, they get resolved or answered in a very quick fashion. While this is a short list, I've reported multiple potholes and other broken stuff, which accounts to about 80% of my calls.

Now, here is the list of problems that usually don't get resolved, provided inaccurate information, being hassled for more information (beyond common sense), and other similar issues:
  • OutsideLands festival road closure information. One person transferred me to 511 without question, and I called 311 again to ask the question and was placed on hold for ten minutes. They claimed all the park roads were "open," when I knew that one nearby my home was closed. Their source of info: A poorly written SFMTA website advisory.
  • Answering more complex Muni questions, like the nearest bus line to the (criminal) Hall of Justice building. It would take them a few minutes to find out, when the old "6-SF-MUNI" phone number (pre 311) would get you that answer in mere seconds.
  • The city forgot to put the sticker on a street sign stating that street cleaning comes the 1st and 3rd week of Friday. I reported it over two months ago and it has not been resolved.
  • Reporting potholes that may be under the jurisdiction of a different agency (such as Caltrans), but may be within the city limits. Sometimes they take the report, sometimes they don't even give you the phone number of the right person to call.
  • Refusing to take a citizen's complaint about the Tour de California closing down Great Highway over 90 minutes before the bikers were to even enter the city.
  • When the southbound Upper Great Highway had to be shut-down due to a storm, the city forgot to switch the signal at G.H. & Lincoln to 4-way stop (flashing red). Try telling that to the lady on the phone who asked why the signal cycle needs to be changed... I had to give a very detailed explanation of why it needs to be flashing red (by running the signals on a regular cycle, drivers heading southbound might think that the Upper Great Highway is open, and will zoom through the green and hit the security barrier that closes the road... a.k.a. LAWSUIT!). If 311 simply reported that the signals need to be on 4-way stop due to a road closure, the report goes to the traffic signal folks at DPT, and they know why in a snap. Before 311, I would call the traffic signal folks at DPT directly, and I told them very briefly of the situation and mentioning the road closure, and they said: "we got it!"
  • Do you really have to ask how big the pothole is? The question of it being safe for a bicycle or motorcycle to drive over it is a simple enough question to determine priority.
  • Reporting roadkill. They ask: "Is it smaller or bigger than a pigeon?" I would answer: "Does a skunk count as smaller?" (It sounds funny, but it's not a joke).
So this material covers about 20% of the issues that don't get resolved/answered or provides inaccurate information. It looks longer, but covers very specific incidents.

In summary, San Francisco 311's call center can answer/resolve the basic stuff, but when it comes to more complex stuff, they don't do well under the pressure and provides inaccurate answers, reports it improperly, and just simply shrugs it off their shoulder.

One note of improvement they do now, if you report something, they check their database for any similar reports before filing your request into the system. If something similar pops up, they tell you about it and confirm if it is the same problem. I could tell them a specific address or intersection, and whatever search program they use can narrow it down, even if it is off by a couple of address numbers or a block away.

Lastly, this may sound a little bit odd, but when I encounter a problem and I don't call 311 in say... a week, I find out that nobody has reported it while dozens to thousands of drivers pass by the problem area and sometimes on a daily basis. Just like that small rock slide, it was there for two weeks until I called it in.

I personally believe our city will be a better place if we simply report the deficiencies of our city as often as we can so they can be repaired in a timely manner (I don't mean snitching to the police every single time a driver doesn't use their turn signals). When people report problems and they get fixed: the better the reputation of 311, other city agencies, and the citizens will have a boost of morale!

When you experience issues with 311, post a comment or e-mail me at: complaints (at) akit [dot] org. I'll post it here at Akit's Complaint Department, where local officials do read my blog and either take action or post anonymous commments.

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