The city’s customer service operators are quite pleasant. Now, if they could only pick up my garbage …

This month, the city will use volunteers to mystery shop its 311 service. This, in itself, is not especially newsworthy. What is intriguing is what it says about how the city works, what the bosses downtown consider their priorities (which, as we have sadly come to learn, are not necessarily our priorities), and what it means with a $1.35 billion bond program on the November ballot.

311 is the city’s customer service system. It’s the number residents call to find out when their garbage gets picked up, to report potholes and to rat out their neighbors for sprinkling during the summer watering ban. It is, in its own way, kind of nifty (one phone call is supposed to handle everything), and is still one of the best of its kind in the country.

The goal of the mystery shopper program, says Brenda Fakheri, who is in charge of the city’s effort, is to measure the quality of the 311 operators. Are they polite? Do they know the correct answer to the question? Is the call answered in a reasonable amount of time?

Notice a couple of things about this. It’s not measuring whether the potholes get fixed (more on that in a bit), and it’s using volunteers culled from crime watches, neighborhood groups and the like. Fakheri seemed a bit apologetic about having to use volunteers, who are supposed to call only when they have an actual service request. Still, she noted, the city is offering training (twice a month; call 214-671-8873 if you’re interested), and at least it’s not costing much more than her salary and the fee to collate the data.

Note, too, that Fakheri was quite pleasant when I talked to her and didn’t seem the least bit like a bureaucrat who was up to no good. In fact, she seemed quite sincere. But the program, for all of its merits, is still being done on the cheap. And if customer service is supposed to be so important to the bosses downtown — which must be true, because Fakheri said so several times, making sure to mention city manager’s Mary Suhm’s name in the process — then why are we doing it on the cheap?

Fakheri also acknowledged that measuring the service delivery component — or, in English, whether the potholes get fixed — is equally important. The city is considering how best to do that, and that a pilot program to measure performance will get underway soon.

Which is the real crux of the matter. Ironically, at the same time I was writing this, the sanitation department neglected to pick up my garbage (not once, but twice). So, good citizen that I am, I called 311 after they missed it the second time. The operator was polite, answered the phone in a reasonable amount of time, and, after conferring with someone at the sanitation department, told me my garbage would be picked up later that day.

It wasn’t, of course, and it took two more phone calls to 311 and another to the sanitation department before someone came out two days later to get it (and I still don’t know why they didn’t pick it up in the first place).

So, if I was evaluating 311, it would get high marks — which would be completely irrelevant, since all the operator can do is pass along whatever she or he is told. Garbage in, garbage out, so to speak. The operator can’t pick up my trash, fix potholes or perform any of the other functions of city government.

It’s nice to know they aren’t as inept as someone at AT&T or the cable provider of the moment, but I’d rather get my garbage picked up.

Which leads us to the bond election. Right now, would I give these people (who tell me customer service is a priority but won’t spend any money to measure it and are measuring the wrong thing anyway) $1.35 billion to spend as they see fit? Hardly.

Pick up my garbage first and make someone accountable if it doesn’t get picked up, and then — and only then — will I let you play with your Tinker Toys.

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