The Globe story fails to note five rather important angles to the story:
- There already is an online constituent service webform (actually two webforms!) that generates a small (but non-zero) amount of tracking information;
- The online webform that accepts complaints about building, health, housing, code enforcement, environmental services, and weights and measures has been broken for more than one year for at least some web browsers;
- The city has begun regularly summarizing various departments' performances through average response times to complaints, despite not having a system fully trackable to the public;
- Mayor Thomas Menino may very well be slow to embrace a city-wide 311 system because he has already associated constituent services with his "Mayor's Constituent Service Hotline"; and
- One of Mayor Menino's likely challengers next year, Councilor Michael Flaherty, has been pushing the 311 service, and may renew his push if Mayor Menino doesn't get the new system running soon.
Why the service has been so slow to roll out was not addressed in the Globe story. I can guess that the basic problem is that various city departments probably use different software to do their core tasks, so the process requires bringing all of their work under a common system. That is an awfully hard task when you're dealing with a large organization -- although New York City was able to do so relatively quickly for $20 million in 2003. Where there's a will there's a way.
Online Constituent Services. The Globe story completely missed the fact that constituent complaints can be submitted online, not just by phone (617-635-4500). Why does this matter? An online complaint (eventually) returns a ticket number, so that you can keep track of the complaint; phone calls do not generate a ticket number. The number helps for follow-up calls -- but you still cannot view the status of the complaint online, ticket number or not.
Weekend staffing for the online form has been spotty in my experience: once I even received an email on Monday morning from a city employee saying that I shouldn't use the online form over the weekend because it wouldn't necessarily be answered. (I have subsequently been told that requests submitted online during the weekend are being read over the weekend, but I have not confirmed that in practice.)
Broken Web Forms. One or more of these web forms has been broken for well over one year, at least in my browsers (Firefox, Konqueror, Opera). The form fails to identify any street address that I enter in order to submit a building complaint (e.g., work after hours). The building, health, housing, code enforcement, environmental services, and weights and measures departments probably think that nobody is submitting complaints online; in fact, since the web forms fail for at least some people (like me), people are stuck sending their complaints back to the Mayor's 24-hour line.
City Department Tracking of Response Times to Constituent Complaints. To his credit, Mayor Menino is using measured metrics to track the response of his various departments to constituent complaints. For example, in 2006 88% of potholes were filled within 24 hours. Obviously, some amount of information is getting stored and analyzed in the current system -- which seems to obviate the need for the Boston Globe to do their own investigation of the city's response to 50 randomly selected complaints, since the city's statistics cover a much larger statistical sample.
Why Turn the "Mayor's 24-Hour Constituent Service Hotline" Into the "City of Boston Constituent Service Hotline"? Come on, Globe, recognize the obvious reason why the Mayor doesn't want to get rid of the "Mayor's 24-Hour Constituent Service Hotline" by creating a "311 Constituent Service Hotline." Do you detect a word that would disappear from the name? Much of an elected municipal official's work is in constituent services, so they understandably want to claim the credit for their (staff's) work. Why not call it the "Mayor's 311 Constituent Service -- That You Can Also Access By Calling 617-635-4500?" I think that name is catchy.
Wait... Councilor Sam Yoon already thought of that idea, and told it to the Boston Globe two years ago:
Some inside City Hall believe Menino may be reluctant to give up a number that's become part of his own urban brand. ''I recognize the mayor, for good reason, could be worried that he'll lose the connection he has with people through the mayor's hot line," says Yoon.
Yoon's solution: ''Let's call it 'the Mayor's 311.' "
Councilor Flaherty Has Been Pushing For 311 Service. In last fall's campaign for Boston City Councilor-At-Large, three of the current office holders -- Councilors John Connolly, Michael Flaherty, and Sam Yoon -- responded to a questionnaire here on the Brighton Centered Blog about revamping the constituent services system. Councilor Connolly called for a 311 service; Councilor Yoon expressed how impressed he was with Somerville's 311 service, and that Boston should improve their service; and Councilor Flaherty noted that he called for the city to implement a "CitiStat" system four years ago:
COUNCILOR MICHAEL FLAHERTY: The city has an obligation to responsibly and efficiently meet the needs of constituents. However, I am unsure that the 24-hour hotline is the appropriate tool as it lacks the ability to track constituents’ requests. That is why we need CitiStat, which is a government accountability program that I called for in 2004. CitiStat enables every request to be tracked so that the city – and its residents (by phone or internet) – can comprehend how quickly and adequately requests are addressed.I am under the impression that Councilor Flaherty and his team consider this one of his signature issues, so the Globe story in Sunday's paper will add fuel the fire of his Mayoral ambitions by giving him a strong issue for campaigning. Mayor Menino therefore has a deadline for rolling out his version of the system before election day in November 2009 -- not in 2010, the date told to the Globe by Bill Oates, the city's chief information officer.