It’s not a perfect system — far from it, in fact.
Indeed, some Marble Hill, Kingsbridge and Riverdale residents know all too well of the city’s 311 system’s shortcomings when it comes to actually addressing their complaints. But now some local lawmakers are looking to fix it.
City Councilman Fernando Cabrera — who chairs the governmental operations committee — and Speaker and acting public advocate Corey Johnson held an oversight hearing Feb. 4 on what they believe is the system’s failure to adequately follow through on some service requests. They’re pushing to get to the bottom of what happens once various city agencies receive complaints through 311, since it seems the general feeling among those using the service feel nothing really gets fixed.
At the hearing, Cabrera’s committee delved into which agencies receive the most complaints, what they’re for, how long agencies take to respond, and why residents aren’t always thrilled with their responses, based on publicly available 311 data from last year.
The committee also heard a bill sponsored by Queens Councilman Robert Holden that would require 311 to indicate in a service request status update when the agency in question is unable to take action on a request.
Current data shows very uneven response times and accuracy in status updates, according to Cabrera’s office. And even though a complaint may be resolved in some cases, that critical information isn’t consistently communicated with the person complaining.
Those who file a complaint “should be able to trust that a complaint filed with 311 won’t languish in a void,” Cabrera said, in a release, “but will get a prompt response, including an accurate status update.”
At the moment, however, the system is plagued by what Johnson describes as “extensive data quality issues.”
And in too many cases, it’s not clear when, or even if, a complaint was ever resolved, Johnson said.
For example, nearly all complaints handled by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission technically are marked closed, yet they appear to be ongoing. In fact, TLC’s most common complaint resolution reportedly just says the commission will respond in a couple weeks to confirm details about the problem.
“How do we know when or if TLC actually resolved the complaint?” Johnson asked.
The city’s finance department also is too “ambiguous” in the way it communicates, Johnson said. In thousands of cases, the agency reportedly says they’ve investigated the issue, but fails to elaborate on what they did to resolve it.
The city’s health department, meanwhile, reportedly addressed around one out of every five rodent complaints — before the complaint even was submitted, Johnson said. “How is this possible?” he asked. As for the others, the complaint resolution just says the health department will look into it, that it’ll probably result in an inspection, and to follow up in a month regarding the status.
“Why can’t complaint status simply be updated once action has occurred?” The Speaker wanted to know.
But those reaching out to 311 also should bear in mind often what looks like a pressing problem to them may not be urgent in the responding agency’s eyes. A bit of context is helpful, too.
The city’s health department, for example, received more than 320,000 inquiries and 66,000 service requests on 311 last year, said Jeff Hunter, assistant environmental health administration commissioner at the city’s health department, according to hearing testimony.
“While we strive to respond to all complaints we receive in a timely manner, our response protocol prioritizes complaints based on the threat to public health alleged in the complaint,” Hunter said. That means “serious allegations” could prompt an immediate inspection, while it may take a few days for the department to respond lesser public health threats. And for even less severe issues, they may send a warning letter to the operator or business owner allegedly at fault, requesting they tackle whatever’s causing the problem, or the health department will need to intervene.
It also helps to know exactly which agency to address particular complaints, although that’s not always evident to less experienced 311 users. And if weeks or more have passed after filing a complaint but still no updates, another option is looping in local community boards for help getting the city to respond.
But it’s crucial to keep track of the complaint number, because without it, it could be difficult to track.
Some local residents have taken to social media to document their frustrations with 311, including Steve Bloom, who says he uses the system almost exclusively to gather parking information. He did once call to report a mess of toppled wooden boards scattered over the sidewalk surrounding Ewen Park on West 232nd Street, however, and he recalls it took nearly an hour to explain the issue to an operator.
“But the boards were fixed in a few days,” Bloom said, “so maybe the call helped.”
Other problems may be less apparent to the naked eye, but still create potential problems — like for commuters unfamiliar with some of the more intricate local bus routes. For example, a sign on the southbound side of Riverdale Avenue near the West 259th Street stop for the Bx10 bus marks Riverdale as a destination, when it actually follows a sprawling trail all the way to Norwood.
A complaint to the city’s 311 system filed last January received a response, but no follow-up — or fix.
As for Holden’s bill, not much is happening right now as it slowly makes its way around the council.