Government 311: How to Improve Complaint Submission

It’s not the first time that 311 has been used to harass neighbors, but it may be the most egregious. Jim Dwyer, writing in the Metropolitan Section of Sunday’s NY Times, tells of a rash of phony 311 complaints that, Dwyer says, “has put thousands of homeowners in Queens under a state of bureaucratic siege.”

“From September to December, more than 3,000 complaints of illegal [residential] conversions were filed in three Queens neighborhoods — Whitestone, Flushing, and Malba.” The result: Buildings department inspectors repeatedly seeking entry into homes maliciously identified by anonymous complainants.

When questioned by Dwyer about the city’s 311 complaint policy, a spokesman for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) said, “We encourage people to file anonymously. They can call and choose not to leave their phone numbers.”

That’s not how it used to be. Before 2003, when Mayor Bloomberg implemented the 311 call system, anonymity wasn’t encouraged. At Brooklyn Community Board 14 (Flatbush-Midwood), all complainants were required to identify themselves, but could request and receive anonymity when their complaint was relayed by the community board to the appropriate mayoral agency. It was a system that prevented the abuse Dwyer writes about.

Of course, community board offices are not open 24 x 7 x 365, the way a centralized computerized switchboard is. So someone wanting to report a broken street light or a pothole through a community board might have to wait until the next business day. But the upside was that when you called a complaint in through your community board office, you were talking with a person known to you, who knew your neighborhood and could follow up with city agencies if your complaint wasn’t promptly resolved.

There was another big advantage to the pre-311 system: A community board could quickly recognize whenever local service delivery complaints were forming a pattern. Block associations and civics could be notified if a rash of similar problems got reported. Duplicate complaints could be identified. But most importantly, someone independent of the mayor could know how well the mayor’s agencies were responding to citizen complaints on a day-to-day basis.

That can’t happen today. Community boards don’t receive detailed information about 311 complaints from their districts. Only someone working for the mayor gets that information. The aggregate summaries made available monthly to the City Council, community boards, and the public don’t contain specific complaint information. In this system, only the fox knows which of his hens is in trouble. So 311, despite its utility, is not working as well as it could.

As Mayor Bloomberg’s 2010 charter revision commission gets down to work, we may start to hear proposals arguing that we should restore the community boards to their pre-1975 roles, as planning boards. Their service delivery role would be diminished. The 311 system may be invoked to justify this: “Why do we need district managers to monitor and coordinate service delivery when the 311 system is so efficient?” This would be a serious mistake.

In our opinion, we need to strengthen local service delivery monitoring and coordination, not weaken it. Community board district managers — paid, professional city employees — perform an invaluable service when they bring together Police, Fire, Sanitation, Buildings, Transportation, and other mayoral agencies, via each community board’s charter-mandated District Service Cabinet. The local agency chiefs value this; it helps them to work together to address a complex neighborhood problem. The community board, whose district deliberately covers the same geographic area as they do (this alignment is called co-terminality), provides the natural forum for such cooperation. It works.

Mayor Bloomberg’s charter revision commission needs to strengthen this role, which can’t be provided by Council members whose districts are subject to periodic reapportionment. The commission should consider adding additional mayoral agencies to the roster of Police, Sanitation, and the others already coterminous with community boards. It also may wish to take advantage of the potential synergy between 311 and community boards by proposing that the charter require that community board district managers and City Council Members receive immediate feedback on individual 311 complaints in their districts.

But even before the charter revision commission mulls over its proposals, Mayor Michael Bloomberg can improve 311 by ordering his staff to consider selectively modifying anonymity policies to prevent what happened in Queens. It wasn’t just Queens homeowners who were harassed; all of us paid for the bogus calls, just as we pay for a false alarm turned in to the Fire Department: a diversion of scarce resources crucially needed for genuine problems, and yet another increment added to our taxes as the city wastes precious dollars.

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