One Week In, Philly’s New 311 App Has Bureaucratic Kinks

“How can this be complete when now there are TWO shopping carts and more trash?”

Last week, we looked at the city’s brand-new Philly 311 app, a clever bit of high-tech public service designed to make it easier for citizens to report issues, get answers and, ultimately, make those using it better, more informed, more engaged citizens. Along with it being useful and educational (I now know exactly who’s responsible for dead cat removal), it’s even, dare we say, fun to eavesdrop on the collective grumbling of the populace.

During the app’s first week, the city seemed to be processing requests at a pretty rigorous clip. And the city claims to have closed 60 percent of its requests (it’s displayed proudly on each request page). Heck, that seems pretty decent, given that new requests are coming in all the time. (As not all requests are made public, it’s not easy to verify this.)

But the thing is, among all the graffiti that’s being scrubbed by the Graffiti Abatement Team, all the folks who are being redirected to the proper offices, and all the illegally dumped trash that’s being cleaned up, there are some “closed” requests that don’t feel particularly closed—neither to the casual observer (that’d be me) nor to the invested requester.

Take, for instance, this complaint about a “street light pole falling down” that was received, set in motion and closed, prompting the submitter to cry foul, alleging “Why is it closed … nothing was fixed” and “The streets dept … didnt even come and look at the thing.” Of course, we don’t know what actually happened if/when the Streets Department visited, but that’s the forum the app is supposed to provide. For this thing to work, all city agencies need to buy into providing information on their processes.

Then take this complaint about a vacant lot in need of cleanup, with a photo of said situation, complete with implicated shopping cart. When the complaint, at the site of Post Green architecture’s ReNewbold project, is marked complete, the user who submitted it is incredulous: “How can this be complete when now there are TWO shopping carts and more trash?” (with another shopping cart fetish photo). The response is enough to quash anyone’s rekindled faith in the public sector: “This ticket was completed because the address used 01803 S 16TH ST is not a vacant lot but a property. please open up a new ticket once the correct address has been established. If you are using google maps on your phone, please be in front of the location when you are submitting the request.”

First, click here for a picture of 1803 S. 16th Street. The vacant lot in question is visible from space, let alone from across the street at 1803 S. 16th St. where the person who submitted this likely lives. Would you necessarily know the exact address of this half-block vacant lot? This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic buck-passing this app is supposed to be rooting out.

Finally, consider this exchange about a traffic light that doesn’t allow cars exiting eastbound I-76 enough time to get through the intersection with Passyunk. Because it was initially misclassified as “street light” rather than “traffic,” it needed to be reclassified—likely setting off the requester’s bureaucracy radar—and then was marked as closed without so much as an explanation.

When the requester asks what, exactly, was done, the admin replies in glorious doublespeak, “Thank you for your inquiry. This means that the Streets Dept has fixed the issue and completed the ticket. Any further issues with the light should be submitted in a new ticket.”

Which sends the requester on a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down tirade:

“So I’m supposed to create a new ticket to get some details about how this problem was fixed? That kind of perfunctory answer is exactly what an app like this is supposed to overcome. This app is supposed to be about transparency and instead you’re giving me a runaround and not providing simple details that citizens have a right to know. If this is the definition of ‘fixed’ and the city is going to trumpet this app as a success based on its own bogus definition of “fixed”, then the app and the City will lose credibility pretty quickly and the city’s public image will be worse than if it had never launced this 311 app. If your definition of ‘fixed’ is ‘because we say it’s fixed’ and you’re not going to publish details, then this app and the 311 system are a sham and a shallow public relations charade that isn’t fooling anyone. This is not the open government I keep hearing city leaders proclaim.”

And this is where this app could go very wrong, if it becomes just another extension of apparatchik unaccountability. If finding ways to complete tickets without solving problems leads to a statistical shell game. If an app touted as being responsive to taxpayer needs further stymies and frustrates them.

This is, admittedly, a small sample size. And hey, maybe the Streets Department did come out and check that post, and maybe that light at I-76 and Passyunk was lengthened. But for this to work, everyone’s got to play along. Every agency has to step up to accountability. Even this one.