“It’s graffiti time!” says the voice at the other end of the line. That’s how self-named “Graffiti Wolf” lets the people answering the 311 SF customer service line know it’s him – again. Graffiti Wolf travels around the city, often by bus, compiling a list of graffiti sites, which he calls in throughout the day. He’s one of the 10 or so “frequent fliers,” as the 311 staff have nicknamed them, who continually complain, mostly about graffiti, but also about San Francisco’s garbage and disrepairs.
One frequent flier walks around his Excelsior neighborhood logging every piece of graffiti or broken sidewalk that he can in order to make complaints. “He can find the smallest piece of graffiti at the bottom of a pole to report.” Another drives around the Richmond looking for graffiti, which he reports three, four, or five times a day. After five complaints or so, 311 representatives are allowed to tell them they’re holding up the lines and will have to call back later. And call back they do. They also take over 311’s Twitter page (yup, in this high-tech town, 311 has 6,975 Twitter followers).
SF311 is also a quasi 411 for city-related questions. You can ask the staff anything from “Where the hell is the 14 bus?” to “How do I get a flu shot?” or “What do I do with this stray cat?” and they’ll give you an answer or hook you up with the person who can. Gavin Newsom created 311 in 2007 as a one-stop-shop to make it easier to navigate city services where you can get a live person whose mission it is to help you out. The Center also sends the mayor data on the types of calls it receives, so he knows what needs to be fixed. It’s the next best thing to Gavin trying to take all our calls himself.
I’ve called 311 occasionally, and I always wondered how the staff so magically have the info at their fingertips. They’re amazingly unfazed by any questions. When I lived on Cypress Street in the Mission, I called with “Um, yeah, how do I put this? Someone, uh, went to the bathroom on the side of my building,” and they filled out the form like nothing and had someone cleaning it up that day. How do these people, with such ease, find my polling booth and get shit cleaned up? I called 311 and asked them to show me their secrets.
The office, in the Bank of America building on Van Ness and Market, looks like a nice company office, with a break room, cubicles, computers, and a conference table. It is a far cry from the dingy operators’ switchboard center I half expected. Many of the 80 or so staff members have worked here since it started and there’s hardly any turnover. It’s a coveted job, the highest paid of any city call center nationwide, attracting the crème de la crème of dispatchers and city workers from places like 911, AT&T, and the Muni complaints department.
Their knowledge of the city is awe-inspiring, thanks to a grueling 10-month training process, ongoing workshops, and eight weeks of classes with weekly tests that demand at least an 80% grade. In some ways, the 311 people are almost like research librarians for the city services – they know how to quickly navigate databases and agencies in split seconds. Most impressive, though, is that despite answering an average of 12,000 calls a day – including lots of aggravated complainers and screamers – they are in good spirits and have an amazing sense of humor.
Mark Lovett, a supervisor who takes me around the office, walks me through 311’s online system – its main weapon in the quest for information. There are scripted responses to the most asked about agencies and online forms to file complaints and requests. There’s a calendar of events and alerts from different city departments so 311 can prepare for likely questions. It’s a sort of motherboard of city news. Being a journalist, I’ll call Mark, not the mayor’s press office, the next time I need to know about a local hot topic.
Today, the water is shut off in the Excelsior and the Department of Public Works forgot to alert everyone, so there are a lot of thirsty callers. A “brown package with something red on it” is on the Balboa line. The fees for birth certificates have just increased. People are curious about the new Clipper cards, and Sunday’s rain has caused all-to-common sewage seepage. And of course, Muni is running late. The staff are armed with all the info to handle these calls.
As Mark diplomatically says, “People are not particularly happy with these things.” Even if staffers agree with a caller’s disgruntled view on things like the state of Muni, they’re trained to politely give information instead of commiserating with them. If people get angry – or call at their wits’ end – staffers keep calm and carry on (or transfer the call to the old-timers).
Most calls are Muni related: there are lots of complaints and questions about when the next bus is coming, or which route is the best. SF311 handles Muni’s calls for missing phones, cameras, prescription glasses, bikes left on the buses’ front racks, and random ephemera. But it’s not all about Muni and graffiti. Staff members handled the Department of Public Health’s calls during the H1N1 outbreak as well as questions during the census, and they have the new post-Katrina FEMA training to help direct everyone if there’s a disaster, like an earthquake.
Alex Reyas, a middle-aged former traffic and parking call center worker, lets me wear a headset to eavesdrop on his calls. He’s been at 311 since its inception and is a pro who is hard to stump with a question. We chat between calls about Muni, New York City versus San Francisco, his son who went to John Jay College, his public commentary columns, his upcoming weekend trip to Miami, and how he avoids ever talking on the phone in his off-hours.
Alex gets a call from a dog walker concerned that sprinklers have been left on all day at Esprit Park; someone complains that a twin-size mattress has been left on the sidewalk; and a patient of Healthy San Francisco has been given the address of an empty building. One woman needs help contesting a $1,000 ambulance bill for her son who was hit by a bus. There are calls from disabled and elderly panicked about Clipper. And mostly there are calls about navigating Muni, which Alex fields with a combination of the NextBus website and an old school-bus map.
Alex is disappointed that we didn’t get a better sample. Over all, people were extremely well behaved. There weren’t even any graffiti complaints. The two people who called about the short notification of the Clipper deadline (which Alex pointed out was announced about a year ago) didn’t even raise their voices. One half apologized for his own reluctance to embrace high-tech change: he even hates bar codes. During Alex’s break, one other 311 rep tells me about a screamer who called in complaining about a taxi driver who had ripped him off, and then called her incompetent. I sort of wished I had been in on the drama.
When I get home, I check out 311’s Twitter page and see posts from a frequent flier – Dolores Clean (@DPClean) – all over the page. DPClean tweets complaints about graffiti that range from sizable artistic pieces to small tags on the top of bus stops, newspaper boxes, poles, and trash cans, as well as illegally wheat-pasted corporate ads and abandoned mattresses (and one lobster on Mission Street near 18 th ). DPClean’s blog describes its mission as “Striving to make an ambiental change in the Mission District through the use of camera phone technology to clean things up” – aka a die-hard Nimby on a crusade.
As a long-time Mission resident and fan of graffiti artists, I find DPClean’s complaints as annoying and objectionable as he (or she) finds tags. Unless the graffiti is something offensive like a swastika, I think government money and energy is better used dealing with real problems like housing, schools, and health care. Maybe I’ll start calling 311 with complaints about DPClean.
Have a question or complaint about San Francisco? Fill out forms directly on 311's website, tweet at @SF311, or simply dial 311.