May 27, 2009
Geri Joyce Killarney
Boston residents who report broken sidewalks and burned-out street lights are getting faster action from City Hall, thanks to a new computer tracking system that has improved response time to citizen complaints, according to city tracking data.
The length of time it took city workers to deliver new recycling bins, for example, decreased from a month on average last fall to just one week earlier this month. City workers now fix burned-out street lights within a week, down from an average of 17.5 days last year. And park maintenance requests, which took an average of 10 days to be fulfilled last fall, are now being addressed within six days.
The improvements are a direct result of a $5 million computer system that allows officials to track the fate of resident complaints, making it easier to hold city managers and workers accountable for their responsiveness and take corrective action if a complaint is in danger of falling into a bureaucratic black hole, city officials said.
"All of a sudden, [department managers] were getting a little embarrassed. The mayor started asking. People started to realize this was real," said Patrick Harrington, special assistant to the mayor who spearheaded the launch of the system last fall. The city released the new response times after a request by the Globe.
In some ways, Boston is simply catching up to other cities across the country that implemented similar systems and received similar results years ago, including Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Somerville, and Hartford. What's more, many cities have also switched to a 311 complaint hotline, but Boston continues to use 617-635-4500. Some critics have said the number should be switched, but city officials say it's not the number of digits that counts.
"The whole intention here was to improve customer service," said William Oates, Boston's chief of information technology who has spent more than two years overseeing the installation and implementation of the tracking system. "Bottom line, what we're finding out is it's improving the quality of the service. We're hearing it from our departments, and we're seeing it in our reports."
In the past, many resident complaints to City Hall were relayed verbally, in scribbled messages or via e-mails to workers in the field, but there was no mechanism to ensure they were addressed. A Globe survey last spring found that citizens who complained to City Hall felt it was a hit-or-miss operation, with some callers pleased by a rapid-fire response and others infuriated by no response at all, despite their placing multiple calls to get action.
Even with the initial successes of the new tracking system, known in City Hall as CRM or Customer Relationship Management, city officials admit it leaves room for improvement.
In three of the 18 types of complaints tracked, response time increased slightly. Average response times to reports of roads needing repair went from four days last fall to five days this month. The average response time to missed trash pickups increased by a few hours, going from 1.4 days to 1.5 days. Complaints about parking violations - such as non-residents parking in resident-only zones - received action in six days and five hours, an increase of several hours over last fall.
Some of the areas that improved also have not reached goals set forth by managers for complaint response. The city cut by nearly two-thirds the time it takes to respond to reports of burned out lights in parks, going from 26 days last fall to nine days earlier this month.
But Bernie Lynch, director of parks, said the goal for responding to such complaints is five days.
Still, he and other department managers say the tracking system provides information that they now find invaluable to running the city. Lynch and the heads of several other departments, including transportation and public works, meet every Thursday and go over reports generated by the new program.
"When we first started, we went over every call we had: What's going on with this one, why has this one been on here for a month?" Harrington said.
Besides increasing accountability, the program also has increased efficiency, managers say. The computer automatically eliminates duplicate complaints about the same problem - several callers often report the same broken tree limb or pothole, for example - which means managers aren't sending out multiple crews to fix it.
"I think it makes you look at your resources and look at how you're deploying them," said Thomas Tinlin, the city's transportation commissioner.
Menino said yesterday that he was reluctant at first to institute a computer tracking system. He balked at the prospect when the programs first became popular among municipal managers several years ago because he said he didn't want his administration to lose "the human touch."
But since he signed onto the idea in 2006, when he hired Oates to oversee his technology initiatives, he said he has been an exuberant supporter.
"We might take a little longer, but we had to put the best system forward," Menino said yesterday. "In government things have a time, this is our time to do this."
Menino has not completely embraced automation and continues to cling to some old-fashioned ways, however. He pointed out that he still prohibits the use of voicemail at City Hall, preferring that all phone calls be answered by real people.
Donovan Slack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org