Friday, September 21, 2012

The limits of kvetchocracy

Earlier this year it was big news when the City released a map, and summary reports of complaint calls to its 311 telephone system. Deputy Mayor Goldsmith claimed that it would "help residents hold government accountable," but it's really hard to take any concrete information from it besides the simple fact that these are the places and issues that people have called 311 about.

I'm a big fan of trouble ticket systems, especially those that empower a competent, conscientious manager to keep better track of requests and responses. 311 is a great tool for that. Interpreted with caution, the statistics can even tell us some useful things about the city. But as a reliable gauge for what the population as a whole want or care about, or even a replacement for other forms of citizen participation, it sucks. Here are some reasons why.

  • It can be rigged. If a media outlet or political leader asks a group of constituents to call 311 about an issue, it can be a good thing if it helps to document that issue. But it can lead to misleading counts of calls.
  • It is easily stymied by silos. If you call 311 about a problem with the subways, the operators will transfer you to the MTA's much less helpful system at 511. There is no recording of your call, so David Greenfield has no way of comparing the number of subway complaints with the number of parking complaints - if he gets a tally of subway complaints at all.
  • It favors the unimaginative. On several 311 calls, I've wasted time with the agent tried to find the right pigeonhole for my issue. If you have a well-known problem like "parking ticket lookup" the agents know exactly what to do with it, and it shows up nicely on the tallies. If you have a hard-to-categorize problem? Last I checked, there was no catch-all where someone from the Mayor's office would actually try to figure out uncategorizable problems.
  • Some people are discouraged. If your step-street has been covered with trash for years, why would you expect a telephone call to solve it? If the cops are not ticketing people who park on the sidewalk, why would you expect them to start just because you ask? In those cases the lack of a 311 call doesn't mean people don't care, it means they've given up. Last month's map actually shows encouragingly that the districts with the most calls tend to be ones with large African American populations, so maybe those populations have overcome their discouragement, but it is always a possibility.
  • It favors people with time on their hands. If you call 311, you always have to listen to some long-ass announcement about alternate side parking. Then you have to explain your problem to the agent, which takes longer if you don't have a boring problem. Then you have to give the agent your name and contact information, and write down the tracking number. All that takes time, and if you're on your way to the subway you don't have that kind of time.

Who has that kind of time? The young and the old. Children and teenagers may have time, but they can't vote and probably don't think of 311 as something available to them. Unemployed people have time, unless they're following the advice of job coaches to make their job search into a full-time job, but they may feel discouraged and disenfranchised, especially if they come from low-income backgrounds. That leaves retirees and people on long-term disability.

These retirees are the same people who show up at all the community board meetings. Many of them are nice people who care about their neighbors, but most of the current batch are trapped in the middle-class Baby Boomer ideology. This is the worldview that equates car ownership, parking and use with freedom, opportunity and upward social mobility, and sidewalks, apartments and transit with dirt, crime and corruption. This worldview colors and pervades their activities, making them more likely to care about noise, parking and congestion, and less likely to care about sidewalk obstruction, transit delays and pedestrian harassment.

Knowing this, it is not surprising that the 311 calls reflect the priorities of middle-class Baby Boomers more than any actual reality on the ground. That will always be present as long as a 311 call takes so long and other populations feel discouraged and disenfranchised. Cutting the alternate-side announcements to ten seconds or less would make a difference, but the totals are not representative of public opinion in general. We need to be very careful that they're not taken out of context.

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