We open on an empty lot, abandoned to its fate of crumbling tires and uncontrolled foliage. That guy who does every movie trailer speaks:
In a world where non-emergency citizen hotlines never existed, one man bravely calls 911 to report … untrimmed exterior weeds.
Unless something has gone severely wrong, gardening violations shouldn’t warrant a response from law enforcement. And that goes for a whole list of other quality-of-life issues. Because in a world … where city police are stretched precariously thin and solve roughly four in 10 murders, we also don’t need to be calling them for potholes or broken streetlights or faulty smoke detectors.
But we do have to call someone. We can’t just walk by abandoned cars all day. Since New Years Eve, 2008, we here in Philadelphia have been calling Philly311 — which Philadelphians, naturally, just call “311.”
Many major cities have a 311 information (OMG is today trash day?) and reporting hotline. Our service is thanks to Mayor Michael Nutter who vowed, come hell or high water, the City would have its own non-emergency system in place before the close of his first mayoral year. Cutting it a bit close to the wire, Mayor Nutter triumphantly entered the walk-in center at City Hall as its first customer on the final day of this goal. He reported … I’m guessing … an abandoned car. Nope, it was actually the location of a recycling bin. One large enough to recycle an abandoned car, I assume. God, those are everywhere.
The mayor even answered the very first call that came into 311. “My name is Michael, how can I help you?” It may seem like that was a setup for a photo opp, but there’s a non-zero chance the mayor genuinely had to pull a shift at the call center. Let me explain.
When Mayor Nutter took office in 2007, the U.S. economy had yet to be balled up, pitched into a dumpster and set ablaze. Before Philly311 could even plug in the phones, its budget was slashed from around $6 million to $2 million.
More concerning, the City’s plans to hire customer service reps with … actual customer service experience, had to be scrapped. Instead, they decided to shuffle around existing City employees (some of whom were about to be let go from slashes to all the other budgets).
Did you formerly maintain City fountains? Now you answer phone calls about noise complaints. Half of the new call center employees had no customer service experience whatsoever. Not one had actually worked in a call center before. But that’s what happens when your daily operating budget is 0 dollars and 0 cents.
Even 10 years later, the city reported (in a kind of boasty way?) “97 percent of Philly311 total staffing is internal transfers from other City departments.”
“97 percent of our surgeons used to be custodial staff,” admitted no hospital, ever.
The “spinal column” of municipal services
As rough as its start may have been (or continues to be with each innovation — looking at you mobile rollout of 2012, and crash of 2022), Mayor Nutter’s dream for Philly311 to become the “spinal column” of the City’s municipal services, was realized. Sure, most of the reviews on the Google and Apple stores are one star. (A personal favorite zinger is: For the love of God — please have an app icon that is sized correctly — a college intern could do this. Which is unfair because the city didn’t have the budget for fancy college interns.)
Just in case you’re wondering if 311 did a Star Wars parody to promote the mobile app, I’m pleased to announce, yes, yes they did.
Considering that in the first year, 1.2 million calls came into the center, and this despite a marketing budget of nothing bucks, you can’t deny that Philly311 is facing down the Goliath that is Philadelphians and quality-of-life issues.
The roughly 30,000 cases submitted each month definitely show a pattern. The returning champ seems always to be: Abandoned Cars. Followed by Illegal Dumping, Graffiti, Vacant Lots, and somewhere down the list, Work Underway Without Permits. Any citizen can anonymously file a complaint over the phone or through the Philly311 app, then track its progress to resolution (if the stars so align).
Here are a few other services 311 provides, as counterintuitive as they seem:
If, for some reason, your business retreat or kid’s birthday party would benefit from a City employee describing 311 in person, they have you covered. There’s no cost, but you do have to make a reservation three weeks in advance.
If you enjoyed the kinds of online learning that plagued American public schools during the pandemic, and wonder how you might get some more, Philly311 has you covered there, too. Listen to these exciting classes offered for free: Intro to Philly311; Philly311 the Mobile App; and Portal Training for Neighborhood Liaisons (though that last one is by invitation only). All ribbing aside, these courses are pretty slick. Whatever college interns they got to design it, should have helped with the mobile app.
- Watch a video.
Did you know Philly311 had its own TV show? No? Well, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore. Like, at all. Sometime after this headline ran in PhillyMag (Philly311 Has Its Own Talk Show. Nobody Watches It), all two seasons of the show were extirpated from the Internet. But don’t worry, Philly311 still runs a Youtube channel where you can watch PSAs about things like how to scare off strangers dressed in raccoon costumes.
Max Weisman is the communications director for the office of Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. I spoke with him, not because he has any explicit connection to Philly311, but because Thomas has introduced a bill called The Citizen Watchdog.
This bill came from a direct response from community members being frustrated by quality-of-life issues and the government’s responses to them. Every neighborhood that we’ve gone to has trash piling up, mattresses on the corner, noise complaints.
Which is what Philly311 was designed to address: non-emergency violations. So why have a new bill when we already have a 311 line? Councilmember Thomas wants citizens to go a step further than anonymously reporting to a call center.
This bill financially incentivizes Philadelphians who make reports and act as part of the solution. It thanks them for their service and helps close the cases more efficiently. The smallest amount we’re looking at is $500.
For that kind of cheddar, you would expect two things. 1. A much deeper involvement from those calling in to report violations. 2. Increased efficiency in the city bringing these cases to a close.
This is not just reporting. You may have to give a statement. You may have to assist the police or district attorney or court liaison. Once an issue is cleared, the citizen who helped will get paid for it. That is the key difference between this bill and Philly311. We’re trying not to ask too much of people, but we are asking for a little more since there’s a payment coming with it.
Weisman continued with a personal example.
I live up in East Falls. We have an older woman in the community who fills out all the Philly311 requests and calls violations into the police. I don’t want to be stereotypical, but there are cohorts of older women who look out their windows to make sure everyone’s behaving. It empowers them. Every neighborhood has one of these women. I just want to pay her for what she’s doing.
$500 is no small check to cut. I asked Weisman where the money for this bill would come from.
Due to taxes and conservative spending, we have a significant surplus in the City budget right now. We feel this is something the City can afford. Councilmember Thomas likes the idea of involving citizens as much as possible in making the city better. Spending money on this is something we can and should do.
So, when can citizens expect to see money from the city in return for helping close quality-of-life cases?
The bill has already been introduced. The next step is a committee hearing before being sent to the mayor. If everything goes according to plan, we hope to pass this bill into law by the end of the year. We are intentionally holding back the committee hearing, though, until after we’ve done a little more community outreach. We want to be as thorough as possible. So if any person or neighborhood group would like to offer input, please reach out to me at [email protected] or, because Councilmember Thomas is a Millennial, we are pretty responsive on social media.
The Citizen Watchdog bill seeks to accomplish what Mayor Nutter and Philly311 set out to solve 13 years ago. Only now, there’s a little more money to throw at the issue. Whether that extra cash will actually lead to more cases being closed, or even if an increase in calls could overwhelm and derail Philly311, is left to be seen. When I asked Philly311 to comment on the potential implications, the Office of the Mayor responded:
The Citizen Watchdog bill is still under review.
For their part, Councilmember Thomas’s office doesn’t see any competing agendas between his proposal and the current Philly311 system.
How rewards would be distributed is up to the mayor. The way the bill is written would require no new systems. This doesn’t need to compete with Philly311 or any of the many services offered by the city. The goal here is not to make more work or burden these systems, but to reward people who are already trying to make the city better.
MORE ON NEIGHBORHOODS TAKING ACTIONPhoto by Daria Nepriakhina for Unsplash.