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Mystery Shopping City Hall (Part 6)

Calling 911 in an emergency, getting a small business license, accessing court dockets and more

When was the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?” That’s a question The Citizen editor Larry Platt asked in an article several months ago. As a result, we’ve taken a page from private industry and unleashed a team of mystery shoppers to interact with city service providers and report back on their experiences…the good, the bad, and the disfiguring. Stay tuned for more.

Mystery Shopper Test #17: Contacting 911 During a Citywide Incident

Steps Taken:

  1. Called 911 to report a gas-like sulfuric stench permeating house and neighborhood, because I was concerned about possible gas leak.
  2. 911 connected and rang for one minute, then disconnected.
  3. Tried again. 911 rang for approximately 5 minutes. Hung up and tried again, a bit more nervously.
  4. 911 rang, picked up, played pre-recorded message: “All circuits are busy, please try your call again later.”
  5. Tried again. Got some variation of unanswered ringing or pre-recorded message a total of 11 times between 10:30 p.m. and 10:45 p.m.
  6. At 10:45 p.m., a harried 911 operator answered and said PGW and Fire Department were aware of and looking into the gas smell, and that it was believed to be a nontoxic refinery spill.
  7. Tweeted at City of Philadelphia’s account about length of time it took for 911 call to be answered.
  8. No response to tweet.

Time Spent: 17 minutes

Result: Got what I needed … eventually

Takeaways: 911 does not seem equipped to handle high call volume during a city-wide incident (like, an actual emergency).

Lightning Bolt Rating: bolt_32x32

Mystery Shopper Test #18: Finding proper licensing information to open a small business

The issue: I run a small business in the back part of a building that I own, and want to open another in the front of the building. Need to get proper license for the business, which will sell food.

Steps taken:

  1. Go to Licenses & Inspections website, to search for what kinds of permits I need for the new business, and to ensure I have the right ones for my current business. After an hour, am still unable to get the information I need.
  2. Figured out that I need to first find out what the zoning is for my building.
  3. Spent 30 minutes on phila.gov, trying to figure out where that information is. Could not find it.
  4. Emailed a friend in the mayor’s office for advice. He sent me to Sam in the Office of Economic Development.
  5. Two weeks later, Sam emailed back that he’s not the right person to help. He sent me to someone in the city’s Small Business Support office.
  6. After sending an email, waited for a response. Never heard back.

Time Spent: Two hours of computer time; two weeks and then several months of waiting.

Result: I wrote a business plan and hired an architect—but still don’t know what licenses I need to actually open my business.

Takeaways: The city does not make it easy to open a small business. It should have an office—or one that’s easier to find—set up to answer the sorts of questions I have.  

Lightning Bolt Rating: bolt_32x32

Mystery Shopper Test #19: Finding Civil Case Dockets

Steps Taken:

  1. Went to the Records Office in City Hall, room 264, to look up the docket of an ongoing civil court case.
  2. Waited a few minutes for the receptionist to get off his phone. The receptionist sent me to another worker, who set me up on a computer with the records.
  3. The worker sat with me step by step, and even typed in the names that needed to be searched to show me how it worked.
  4. When she went back to her desk, I accidentally prematurely logged out of the database— twice. Each time, she got up, set up the computer again—and kept a smile on her face.
  5. Docket found. Records worker printed it for me!

Time Spent: 20 minutes

Result: Got what I needed!

Takeaways: The Records Office has a solid system and are very helpful to those who don’t know much about how it works.

Lightning Bolt Rating: bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32bolt_32x32

Mystery Shopper Test #20: Contacting 311 to get a light bulb replaced in a breezeway

The issue: My house was broken into while I was away on vacation. When I came home, I noticed the streetlight in my back alley was broken, keeping the backyard dark—and hiding potential burglars.

Steps Taken:

  1. I called 311 to report the broken light in the breezeway behind my home in South Philly.
  2. I got a quick answer the first time I called. I placed the report, answered a few questions, and the operator gave me a transaction number. She told me the light bulb would be replaced in about two weeks.
  3. About five months passed and still no light bulb, so I called 311 a second time.
  4. An operator answered quickly, and I told him my situation—including the fact that I had already called once. He wasn’t apologetic.
  5. He asked me a series of questions, including my location and the state of the alley in which the lamp post sits, like if there’s overgrowth (there is only a little).
  6. Like the previous employee, he gave me a transaction number and told me that they would send someone out.
  7. Before I hung up, I told him that I could go out there and replace it myself, and he assured me that I shouldn’t mess with City property.

Time Spent: 10 minutes between both calls.

Result: It’s now about four months from my last call (and nine from my first!) and I still don’t have a light in the breezeway behind my house.

Takeaways: The 311 operators were friendly enough, but the light bulb was never replaced, so … 

Lightning Bolt Rating: Zero!

Photo: R. Nial Bradshaw/Flickr

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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