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Bureaucracy Can Defeat Good Intentions

February 18, 2001|SUE FOX

Callers who reach out and touch City Hall these days are likely to find themselves groping through a bureaucratic thicket.

Take the recent experience of Jason Greenwald, a 29-year-old writer and political consultant. He was cruising down La Cienega Boulevard, past the Beverly Center shopping mall, when he saw two delivery trucks parked in the right lane, hampering traffic. So he grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.

"I knew it wasn't a life-threatening emergency," Greenwald said, "but I figured I'd start there." Calling 911 from a cell phone rings the California Highway Patrol, which in this case informed Greenwald that his was not a life-or-death call.

Then Greenwald remembered the city's handy 877-ASK-LAPD number, a new service for nonemergency calls to police that was intended as a stopgap measure until the city completes the 311 system.

He got through, and an operator referred him to the city's Department of Transportation. Then a DOT worker told him he really ought to talk to a different DOT bureau and gave him that number, at which point, Greenwald said, he reached an argumentative clerk who questioned whether Beverly Center was really in Los Angeles.

"I said, 'Look, I've lived in L.A. my whole life.' Then she said she had to code it based on some grid system, and she would file a report and give it to someone else, but she wouldn't be able to tell me if it was followed through on," Greenwald recalled. "Then I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told the supervisor had gone home for the day."

Four days later, the supervisor returned the call.

Greenwald's experience is a classic case, according to a customer survey commissioned by the city. Not only did he have trouble figuring out which agency to call--the most frequent complaint of the 1,800 residents surveyed--but he also was unable to track his request and the call was not followed up in a timely manner.

Greg Dexter, the city's 311 project manager, said a 311 system would have promptly linked the frustrated caller to the proper agency, which would have been better prepared to handle his request. (One kink yet to be ironed out, however, is that 311 might not be accessible from cell phones. The city plans to discuss options with cell phone companies.) Greenwald, for one, said he looks forward to the 311 age.

"I did my honest best" to report a problem, he said. "Nobody was dying, but it was the sort of thing where it would be really nice to alert the appropriate person so that the hazard could be removed."

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