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
- Called 911 to report a gas-like sulfuric stench permeating house and neighborhood, because I was concerned about possible gas leak.
- 911 connected and rang for one minute, then disconnected.
- Tried again. 911 rang for approximately 5 minutes. Hung up and tried again, a bit more nervously.
- 911 rang, picked up, played pre-recorded message: “All circuits are busy, please try your call again later.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Tweeted at City of Philadelphia’s account about length of time it took for 911 call to be answered.
- 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: ⚡️
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.
- 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.
- Figured out that I need to first find out what the zoning is for my building.
- Spent 30 minutes on phila.gov, trying to figure out where that information is. Could not find it.
- Emailed a friend in the mayor’s office for advice. He sent me to Sam in the Office of Economic Development.
- 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.
- 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: ⚡️
Mystery Shopper Test #19: Finding Civil Case Dockets
- Went to the Records Office in City Hall, room 264, to look up the docket of an ongoing civil court case.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️
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.
- I called 311 to report the broken light in the breezeway behind my home in South Philly.
- 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.
- About five months passed and still no light bulb, so I called 311 a second time.
- An operator answered quickly, and I told him my situation—including the fact that I had already called once. He wasn’t apologetic.
- 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).
- Like the previous employee, he gave me a transaction number and told me that they would send someone out.
- 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!