Image by Public domain.

It's about to get much easier to request repairs for broken equipment at DC public schools and recreation centers. In this year’s budget, the DC Council fully funded the addition of DC Public Schools (DCPS) and Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) facility maintenance requests to the city’s existing 311 system.

This means that any resident or visitor will be able to contact 311 for these service requests, just like they already can for dozens of other city services. They will also receive a 311 service request tracking number, emailed status updates, and the ability to call 311 for follow-up questions about the issue they flagged.

School and park users expect well-maintained and safe facilities. Sometimes things break, wear out, or just don’t work properly any longer. Even though DPR and DCPS run their own programs and facilities, they are generally not responsible for facility maintenance—that's the Department of General Services' (DGS) job. Unfortunately, the current process makes it difficult to point out these types of problems and causes extra administrative work for DGS, DPR, and DCPS.

Requests currently flow through facility staff to DGS

DPR and DCPS staff can submit their facilities maintenance requests to DGS online, but this places the entire burden on school and rec center staff to find and report broken things. As much as they walk around the facility, they might not notice every maintenance problem. Plus they have other responsibilities—like teaching classes and coaching basketball—so submitting maintenance reports might not be a top priority.

School and park users often are the first to notice what needs to be fixed, and generally want to help keep the facilities safe and usable. Yet under the current system, they’d still need to track down DCPS or DPR staff to submit the request to DGS. This isn’t ideal because a student on their way to class or a parent pushing their toddler on a swing may not want to interrupt what they’re doing to find staff and report a maintenance problem.

In late 2017, student journalists at Woodrow Wilson High School looked at widespread maintenance problems at their facility. The students inspected all of the bathrooms and water fountains for broken equipment and compared these issues to the number of open maintenance issues with DGS. All except two of the numerous bathroom problems were not open maintenance requests with DGS, “...suggesting either that issues are not being reported to DGS, or that they are the kind that can be handled in-house.”

Given that students can’t directly report problems to DGS in a trackable manner, it’s not surprising that there is a gap between the known problems and what has been reported by staff to DGS.

Informal reporting isn’t the same as using 311

There are other ways to request maintenance without contacting facility staff who would then report the issue to DGS. Sometimes I am walking or biking past a facility, notice something broken and want to report it without going into the facility to meet with staff. Other times, I’m at a school or rec center to watch an outdoor sports event and the building isn’t even open or staffed. Or, if I’m at a meeting with my kids’ teachers, I might not want to interrupt a series of scheduled meetings to find a staff person who can report the problem.

Over the years, I’ve tried using the District website email forms for DPR and DCPS. I nearly always receive responses, but the issues are rarely resolved without many follow-ups on my side. For safety concerns, I have escalated the issues to my Councilmember or the Mayor’s Community Outreach Assistant for the ward where the facility is located. Their intervention usually results in a successful repair. While I appreciate their help, it seems like an indirect way to have something fixed by DGS.

During recent years, I have used Twitter with mentions of @DCDPR or @DCPublicSchools along with mentioning @DCDGS since they perform the maintenance. Sometimes, one or more of the entities mentioned have responded to acknowledge the request, but the results have been inconsistent at best. There have been times when I have eventually had to contact a Councilmember or the Mayor’s office if it’s an unresolved safety issue.

Request via Twitter for DGS and DPR to trim overgrown weeds in bleachers at DPR's Banneker Rec Center. Later escalated to Mayor's office for resolution. Image by the author.

Request via Twitter for DGS and DCPS to repair missing and torn shades in Wilson High School auditorium. No response or resolution. Image by the author.

I couldn’t help comparing these experiences with the effectiveness of 311 requests in resolving other type of issues. When I submitted a bulk trash request, within minutes I received by email an assigned date for the pickup.

When I asked for a tree in my neighborhood to be trimmed or planted, several days later I received an email update through 311 with DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration advising me on next steps. Abandoned bicycles stripped of parts were inspected within a week or two and later removed, according to email updates I received.

In all cases for the 85 different issues listed in DC311 or the mobile app, the submitter receives a service request number and the knowledge that the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) sent the request onto the appropriate agency for consideration. Issues could be escalated to the responsible agency, Mayor’s office, or a Councilmember by sharing the service request number for tracking purposes.

Detailed comment by DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration in response to tree planting request. Image by the author.

Council staff agreed 311 could handle DPR and DCPS maintenance

I wondered why DPR and DCPS maintenance weren’t available issues in 311, so I decided to ask the Council about it. I contacted the Committee on Transportation and the Environment staff with the idea. The staff thought the idea seemed reasonable, and they invited me to speak about the idea at the 2017 oversight hearings. I wasn’t available to attend, but the staff accepted my thoughts by email.

Several months later, the Committee staff contacted me with some good news: this idea had been fully funded in the fiscal year 2019 budget.

The Council approved a recommendation by Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff providing one-time funding of $112,500 for the necessary updates to 311 by the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) and $5,000 for DGS to connect their workorder system with 311. According to Kelly Whittier, Director of Communications for Cheh, the Council also set aside $52,000 annually for the equivalent of one additional 311 employee for the incoming requests.

These changes, once implemented this year by OUC and DGS, will enable anyone anytime to submit service requests for DPR and DCPS maintenance through any of the existing 311 mechanisms: website, mobile application, or by calling 311. The requests will flow from OUC to DGS for processing in their existing system. On-site DPR and DCPS staff no longer need to be involved when residents and visitors want to report a problem for DGS to repair.

With 311, anyone can help with school and park maintenance

311 itself doesn’t fix issues—it only provides a centralized place for people to report problems to the District. Some complicated or expensive issues, such as roadway repair, can take months or years to assess and resolve.

But for many issues, 311 prevents people from having to research which agency provides the services requested and makes it easy to submit the request to one place. 311 then assigns a tracking number and routes the request to the appropriate agency. The assigned agency can then, if desired, use 311 to provide updates directly to the person who reported the issue.

Much of what is reported into 311 feeds into the larger DC Open Data initiative. This enables public review of the information and allows developers to built tools that improve how the data is used, such as the recently launched DC 311 Service Request Lookup available through Twitter.

DC 311 Service Request Lookup tool on Twitter, by Andrew Dunkman, to automatically create links for the status of service requests, even those created without emails. Image by the author.

The council also uses 311 data for oversight hearings. When a resident or visitor escalates a service request, the assigned 311 number and associated request information gives the council or mayor’s office a starting point when asking the assigned agency for an update.

The use of 311 for DCPS and DPR won't by itself fix parks and schools, but it will allow all of us to easily report worn out or broken equipment so DGS can make the necessary repairs.

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.