Several months ago, Citizen editor Larry Platt posed a question we’ve been wondering about ever since: When was the the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?” Since then, 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.
See previous Mystery Shoppers here. Stay tuned for more.
Mystery Shopper Test #32: Checking Publicly Available Criminal History
- Went to the Pennsylvania Judiciary Web Portal.
- Navigated to the “Case Information” tab, then hovered over “Court Cases.” When a second menu appeared, clicked on the “Magisterial District Courts” button.
- Changed the search type from the default setting—docket number—to participant name.
- Here I entered my exact first and last name, as well as date of birth. If I was looking up someone else’s info, I could also have input any combination of county, court office, docket type, case status, and date filed.
- Voilà! There it was, the only stain on my permanent record—a speeding ticket for going 55 in 50 MPH speed limit.
Time Spent: 5 minutes
Result: Got what I was looking for—my own criminal history (such as it is).
Takeaways: It’s a pretty intuitive process. It should be noted, though, that this does not include Secure Web Docket Sheets—which are docket sheets not available to public. Also, it doesn’t include civil or criminal history outside of the state, therefore does not replace a criminal background check that can only be performed, for a fee, by PA State police.
Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️⚡️⚡️
Mystery Shopper Test #33: Reporting A Pothole Via the 311 App
- Downloaded the “Philly 311” app (it’s rated 2 and a half stars—not a promising sign)
- Pressed the first Icon on the home tab “Submit a Request”
- Scrolled down through the “Select an Issue” page to “Pothole Repair”
- From here, the app took me to an interactive map that allowed me to drop a pin exactly where the pothole is.
- After clicking the Next button, it took me to a full request form where I filled out additional information about the pothole. There was a section that included emergency info—Is it leaking gas? Is water running from the hole? Is it on an interstate highway?—and the option to click “no” or “yes, call 911”. There was also an option section to describe the hole. (Wasn’t sure what to write here—big and round? Typically hole-y in nature?) The final section was the option to leave my name and contact number.
- I submitted the request, and a notification popped up that told me the Department’s estimate time for my request is 3 business days.
Time Spent: 5 minutes
Result: I successfully reported the pothole. But as of a month from my original request, the pothole on my street remains unfilled.
Takeaways: The Philly 311 app is intuitive enough to navigate and use (though not any more efficient than calling 311 on the phone), and the pin drop is a smart way to utilize GPS technology. It’s all for naught, though, if nothing happens.
Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️
Mystery Shopper Test #34: Checking the status of a blocked sidewalk
The Situation: Ongoing construction in front of my North Philly apartment building has left a 10-foot hole that forces pedestrians to walk into the busy street.
Part 1—Reporting the Problem Through the Philly 311 App
- Go to Philly 311 app
- Pressed the first icon on the home tab “Submit a Request”
- Scrolled down through the “Select an Issue” page to “Right-of-Way”
- I went again to the interactive map, where I dropped a pin in front of my apartment building.
- Then the app took me to a slightly different form to fill out. First I specified that the issue was something ongoing, not a block party or moving van. It asked me what kind of work was being done (private company construction) and for how long (two + weeks).
- Then it asked me information about the company’s permit—which I have no idea since I do not even know the company’s name. I just selected “not sure.”
- I leave a name and number to be updated about my request.
- I hit submit, and a notification popped up that told me the Street Department’s estimated time to resolve my request was 25 business days— whoa, much longer than the three days for a pothole request.
Time Spent: 5 minutes
Result: Like with the pothole report, the process was easy but not efficient. Five weeks after submitting my request. I have not heard back from the department, nor has has the sidewalk been reopened.
Takeaway: What’s the point of an efficient reporting system if it doesn’t result in actually fixing the problem?
Lightning bolt rating: ⚡️⚡️
Part 2—Checking Street/Sidewalk Closure and Permit Information Online
- I had heard about this new interactive map of the street and sidewalk closure permits registered with the Streets Department. But because the City of Philadelphia loves giving its citizen’s a challenge—thanks, City Hall!—there is no direct link to the map from the Streets Department website.
- Instead, I Googled “Philadelphia Streets Department Street and Sidewalk Permit Portal” to find it. (You can just click on the link above.)
- The website first displays a disclaimer that its information is updated every half hour—which is an impressive refresh rate—then takes you right to the map.
- From here it’s an easy process. There is a search bar in the top left corner where I could enter the address of the sidewalk closure, or I could scroll to it on the map. A legend on the side of page explains which color coded lines signifies sidewalk closures, partial street closures or full street closure.
- When I clicked on the block I had in mind, a blue box popped up with the words “CLOSURE PERMIT.”
- Clicking on the arrow brought up a new window with the permit’s number and official purpose, as well as the effective and expiration dates. There was also a pdf copy of the original permit with more details. I found out that the construction would be going on until October (sigh).
Time Spent: 15 Minutes looking for the website, 5 minutes actually using it.
Result: I was able to find the name of the company that had the permit to work on the sidewalk outside my building, find out the (expected) duration of the construction project, as well as how long they have been given for the work. That didn’t fix the hole in the ground, but can help me better fill out another 311 report.
Takeaway: The interactive map is unnecessarily difficult to find—why not put it front and center on the Streets Department homepage. (Admittedly, it has only been out for a couple weeks.) But the website itself is full of really practical information about street construction—like what exactly they’re doing and when will it finally be over.
Lightning bolt rating: