311 Comes to Oakland

The city finally added the widely adopted phone number for municipal complaints. But with rampant illegal dumping, Oakland’s complaint-driven approach has been criticized.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Dozens of cities across the country allow residents to call 311 to report illegal dumping, potholes, and other issues on public property. The service has been available in Berkeley, San Jose, and San Francisco for years. But it wasn’t introduced in Oakland until April, when the city rolled out the new phone number alongside a new website (311.oaklandca.gov) and app (OAK 311) to report public maintenance issues.

It’s been a long time coming for Oakland, which often struggles to keep up on maintenance. The first 311 service launched in Baltimore in 1996. Back then, it connected callers to the police non-emergency dispatch. The next year, the FCC made the 311 code available to all cities to provide access to non-emergency government services. Chicago was the first city to expand 311 to all city services in 1999, and in the following years it spread to dozens of cities, including Los Angeles and New York.

While Oakland already has a public works call center and an app, SeeClickFix, where residents can use their smart phones to document and report problems on public property, city officials are hoping that by adding the 311 number and consolidating services under that branding, residents will have an easier time remembering how to report problems. Department of Public Works spokesperson Sean Maher said that with so many options, tracking down the right way to report an issue takes work. “We wanted to eliminate that work; we wanted to make it simple and easy and quickly memorable,” he said.

The introduction of 311 will not change Oakland’s underlying infrastructure. You can still reach the public works call center by dialing 510-615-5566 and report non-urgent issues using the SeeFixClick app (although it’s now called OAK 311). The city hired one new operator for its call center, but otherwise it’s staffed by the same people, Maher said. But with the new outreach campaign, the city is hoping that more residents start using the service. In particular, the 311 call center is a good place to call in any urgent public works issues, like flooded streets, fallen tree limbs, and overflowing manholes. While the regular 311 call center only operates during normal business hours, in off-hours it will connect to emergency dispatchers.

“You can use 311 to connect to a person 24 hours a day,” Maher said. “Calling will always connect you to somebody if you have an urgent issue.”

Of course, many calls will need to be directed elsewhere. Life-threatening emergencies should always be reported by calling 911. Unlike in San Francisco, public buses are operated by a separate regional agency, so any problems with them need to be directed to AC Transit. Broken water mains and other problems with water use should be directed to the East Bay Municipal Utility District. And downed power lines or gas leaks should be reported to PG&E.

Oakland also is fighting the perception that little is accomplished by reporting maintenance issues. In fact, the city is recommending that residents re-report any issues that aren’t solved right away, saying that it’s impossible to respond to everything. When it comes to allocating those resources, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

“Folks may have reported issues before in the past that we didn’t respond to right away or that are still outstanding,” Maher said. “We would encourage folks to keep reporting things.”

Reports also help the city determine what residents most care about. According to reports filed through the SeeClickFix system, the biggest issue Oaklanders were concerned about was abundantly clear: 27,028 out of 65,600 calls between April 2017 and April 2018 — more than 41 percent — were to report illegal dumping. It was the largest area of concern by 32 percentage points: Building maintenance was the next highest priority, with 5,919 calls, or 9 percent of total calls, followed by street repair with 3,558 calls, or 5.4 percent.

Illegal dumping has been on the rise. Public works made nearly twice as many pickups of illegally dumped trash in fiscal year 2016-17 it did in 2012-13, and receives 72 percent more complaints, according to city records. Maher said that the city has been adding resources to address the problem and overall is keeping up with complaints: The city’s target is to respond to 85 percent of illegal dumping complaints within three business days, but aside from when city workers were on strike in December, the city is responding to 95 percent within one business day.

However, the perception may be that the city isn’t responding because dumpers keep coming back. “A lot of that I think comes down to rapidity with which new dumping ends up out on the street,” Maher said. The city also legally can’t pick up dumping on private property; that’s up to the property owner.

Some frustrated residents and elected representatives have called the city’s complaint-driven method into question. The East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods held a “No Dumping Reality Tour” in March that highlighted the difference in city services between the hills and the flatlands. At-large city Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan went along for the tour, advocating for a more proactive approach to cleaning illegal dumping and filling potholes. “We need where those resources go to be focused on where the greatest need is, and not who complains the most,” Kaplan said.

City Councilmember Desley Brooks advocated for a pilot program underway in her East Oakland district this year providing more proactive cleanup. 

Maher said the three-month pilot started in March and will be studied after it’s over to determine whether it was successful and scalable. “We’re doing proactive routes to pick up dumping where we find it,” he said. And while the city is still responding to complaints in that area, there’s fewer resources available.

Brooks has also advocated that Waste Management, Oakland’s trash pickup provider, pick up trash dumped on public property while drivers are on their regular routes. “This is, to me, not just an illegal dumping problem, it’s a cleanliness problem that people talk about throughout the city,” Brooks said at a September meeting of the City Council Public Works Committee. “We need to look comprehensively at how we look at this total picture.”

So, in addition to simplifying its complaint system, Oakland hopes to employ other methods of cleaning the streets. There also have been calls for better enforcement. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has an environmental protection unit that has been working with Oakland police to investigate illegal dumping cases. At the town hall meeting in April to discuss illegal dumping, Mayor Libby Schaaf suggested to a reporter that public shaming is an option. To the dumpers, she said: “We will catch you and we will humiliate you.”

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