D.C. making repairs and responding to other service problems faster, analysis shows

December 14, 2011

The District government has vastly improved its delivery of basic services over the past decade and by one key measurement has continued to improve this year, according to a review of city data.

An analysis of how long it takes city workers to respond to certain problems shows that in 2000, the average request for service took nearly 90 days to resolve. That has dropped to five or fewer days over the past several months, the data show.

The city’s responsiveness has markedly accelerated even as service demands have risen sharply in recent years. During that time, it appears that there’s better service in every ward in the city and that among different neighborhoods, the gap in the time it takes to fix problems has narrowed. That has occurred even as the city’s population has grown and its workforce has shrunk.

The data, as well as polling and interviews, suggest that the ethical controversies and federal investigations that have surrounded Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and some D.C. Council members have not affected the functions of the city. They suggest that after substandard service through the 1990s, the past decade of city leadership has created a new base line of service delivery buoyed by stable revenue, a better-managed workforce and an embrace of technology.

But that has not eased some residents’ concerns that the recent political embarrassments could threaten the city’s progress toward meeting its most basic expectations.

“City services are one of those things that you don’t think about until something doesn’t work right,” said Jeannine Jacokes, a resident since 1988 who has watched the city move past once-frequent missed trash pickups and pothole-laden streets. “But something that is of concern is reading about all of the difficulties that’s going on with members of the city council and the mayor. . . . If it continues for an indefinite period of time, I think it can impact the quality of service.”

The data reviewed by The Washington Post deal with the relatively small annoyances of urban life — potholes, non-working streetlights, rats, broken parking meters. Although the metrics do not reveal how the D.C. government addresses its most difficult problems — such as the quality of education and social services for the needy — they indicate how the government meets its most basic demands.

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The Post reviewed the information with the help of Georgetown University researcher Lindsay Pettingill, who has analyzed D.C. service data for academic purposes. The data consist of requests routed through the city’s central clearinghouse for service tracking.

When a request is made through the city’s 311 call center or the Internet or by a city employee, a “ticket” is opened to allow residents and administrators to track the issue and then closed after action is taken. The elapsed time between the opening and closing of a ticket provides a rough but telling measurement of government response.

The data are accompanied by a long-term increase in residents’ satisfaction with basic government services. In February 2000, 14 percent of residents polled by The Post said improving city services was the biggest issue facing the District. That month, data show, a resident could expect to wait 78 days, on average, for a service request to be fulfilled.

In the most recent Post poll, in May, only 3 percent named city services as their top concern. The data show that in October, the most recent month analyzed, a resident could expect to wait four days to get action.

‘This should be expected’

Allen Y. Lew, Gray’s city administrator, said that the continued improvement is the result of years of attention and effort over several mayoral administrations and that it shouldn’t necessarily warrant special acclaim.

“When you don’t hear about potholes or you don’t hear about trash removal, it means it’s getting done,” he said. “It’s not a story. This should be expected. . . . It shouldn’t be like, ‘Wow, they should get an Academy Award for getting the garbage removed.’ ”

In addition to better response times, the city also had improved which parts of the District get speedy attention. In 2001, a Ward 7 resident could expect to wait 25 days longer than a Ward 1 resident to see a service ticket closed. This year, the difference between the fastest service and the slowest has been reduced to slightly less than eight days. [Calls in Ward 2 are resolved in 3.5 days while those in Ward 8 are fixed in 11.2 days.]

That has occurred as the number of calls for service has increased. Until 2002, the city logged fewer than 10,000 requests a month. It now receives 30,000 or more a month. Government observers suggest that response time, not the number of calls, is a better measurement of effectiveness, noting that residents are more likely to file requests when they see that they are quickly addressed.

The central request depot was established in 1999 by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to make it easier for residents to get government agencies to fix their problems. Previously, they had to navigate a bureaucracy simply to log a complaint, recalls former city administrator John A. Koskinen, who served under Williams from 2000 to 2003, when response times saw their most dramatic gains.

“You first had to figure out who to call. Then, if you could find the number, you had to find somebody who would answer the phone. And if they answered the phone, you would have to hope the message got through,” he said.

The call center and tracking system were part of a push to use technology and improve management infrastructure to allow the city to improve its operations in the early part of the decade.

Koskinen, who lives in Ward 4, said that garbage and recycling collectors “haven’t missed a day in years” and that he recently called to have a streetlight fixed, and it was — within two days. “That was something that was never done in the past,” he said.

Some residents have tended to blame employees for poor services, Koskinen said, but many of the front-line employees have remained the same over the years. “What they’ve got now is tools and resources, and they’ve got structure and people who care about the performance,” he said. “It ripples through the system.”

Increase in open cases

It is not a perfect system. Lawrence Russell, who has lived on Florida Avenue NE for three years, said he has seen tickets closed without a satisfactory response.

For instance, he and other residents are trying to get the city to fix a stretch of broken sidewalk on Ninth Street, near his home. No fewer than three tickets have been opened and closed in recent months, he said, but no repairs have been made.

Data also show that since 2008, an increasing number of requests have gone unfulfilled, with more than 1 percent left open and unresolved in six of eight wards.

Lew said he was not aware of any policy change that would lead to tickets being closed without being addressed. “Occasionally, there’s some screw-ups. I’m not saying our government is perfect,” he said.

Although polling shows that concerns about city services have lessened, they have been replaced by concerns about more difficult-to-solve problems, such as creating jobs for the city’s unemployed and addressing the public education system. They are also more worried about city government — efficiency, financial management or corruption, for example.

Some residents, including former and current city officials, wonder whether the city’s gains are in danger of disappearing if the government is distracted by scandal over a prolonged period.

“If that dysfunction goes on for any length of time, it can absolutely have an impact on the quality of services,” Jacokes said.

But Robert Martin, a Washington native and former city employee who lives in Ward 7’s Benning neighborhood, said he is not concerned that the city will return to the days when services were dismal — something he attributes to the influx of new residents.

“They have grown to expect certain things,” he said. “It’s very hard to give people a taste of sugar, then turn around and give them salt. They’ve gotten used to this.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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