It’s no secret: A lot of major cities and towns don’t have the most solid system for gathering and resolving complaints. The problem goes beyond faulty mechanicals or questionable customer service: When the NYPD, Cali, Chicago, or Boston, from time to time, are hit with a number of formal complaints in one go, things can quickly get out of hand. Not only is that frustrating for some of the people who have taken the time to file a complaint, but it can also result in somebody being arrested. Some say this state of affairs reflects the problem of our muddled and sometimes maddening American justice system. Others think it should signal something bigger: that all Americans should be the ones determining the types of services they will demand — especially at the local level.
For many cities and towns, the solution to this problem can be as straightforward as one of humanity’s favorite pastimes: “We could just fix 311!”
The problem is that the long-standing problem of communicating important information about your town and/or city often goes unchecked and unaddressed until it’s too late. And things happen all too often, it seems: After a Powerball winner from the state of Illinois won $330 million in January, the city of Wilmette got more than 100 flood-related complaints all in one day. And earlier this year, after a D.C. utility got a phone call about an earlier, likely larger, phone call, it subsequently had to shut off water for more than 12,000 city residents.
It’s also not just cities that have fallen victim to bad customer service, either. On Valentine’s Day 2018, a South Carolina government office lost track of more than 2,000 weddings it had called into. Over a dozen years ago, after a line at an airport began spinning in its direction, a Canadian airport lost track of all the people who had checked into a VIP lounge. And the infamous tale of how one Texas agency lost track of hundreds of firefighters, or how a Colorado county lost track of more than 3,000 cars of people it had asked not to be near, are all examples of bad customer service leading to power outages and even death.
In the end, we all get a shitty customer service service sometimes. Whether it’s a glitch with your computer’s email provider, a call in to an NBC affiliate office, or a few miscommunications in a phone call to the governor’s office in Boston, there are lots of times when people end up feeling undervalued and sort of forgotten. For many cities and towns, it’s easier to fix the wrong Uber driver number than solve the problem at the root of why the exchange happened in the first place: an over-reliance on corporate customer service data. Many seem to think that without an online reporting mechanism — or similar system — it’s difficult to do a clear accounting of the complaints that are really coming in from the public.
In 2014, New York City implemented a statewide system to address this problem. Before that point, New Yorkers couldn’t easily file an electronic complaint online about a potential government problem. They had to reach out to a dedicated hotline, or speak to the clerk in person.
The 311 system is supposed to be a way to collect and aggregate complaints about city services. But it hasn’t helped the city tackle the big problems that plague cities the most. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio made his second mayoral bid with a call for “real responsibility and accountability” to clean up New York. That’s going to have to start with investing in a true customer service system that can address problems that get piled into complaints that aren’t all that different.
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The article is excerpted from City Nation: Inside the Way America Works by Melissa Clark; a $12 copy of City Nation can be purchased at amazon.com or by contacting Paliride.i.a to request a $12 rate break.
Melissa Clark is a research analyst at Paliridion and founder of City Nation, a project that uses data to tell the stories of how people live their lives and how the places they call home work