Hapless city government? There’s an app for that!

I read news this week of the city’s new “Fix It! Portland.” initiative with some skepticism. The program allows people to notify city officials of problems like potholes, unplowed streets and flickering street lights using a smartphone app or a page on the city’s website.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you’ve already got your phone in your hand, why not just call City Hall to report the problem, rather than download and navigate an app to register a complaint? Similarly, the city already had an e-mail link on its website that could be used to report these issues. But as the Press Herald noted, that “old electronic way to report problems … still required a city staffer to determine which department was responsible and then forward the complaint or issue.”

Wow, what a hassle that dinosaur-age e-mail system must have been! City staff must have been wasting precious seconds, maybe even a minute or two, every month forwarding e-mails — time that could be more productively spent scratching an itch, or taking a sip of coffee.

This flagrantly inefficient waste of time and public money has finally been put to an end. For a mere $10,000, the city now has a system that allows complaints to be automatically routed to the proper personnel (in some cases, anyway; many of the complaints already posted on the program have had to be forwarded to the proper department by a human being). And you thought sliced bread was a giant step for mankind!

A Luddite at heart, I’m suspicious of any effort to shift work and responsibility from people to technology. From online learning to “smart” parking meters and trash cans, city officials in Portland have been eager to embrace the latest gadgets and tech trends — generally at significant expense while producing insignificant results.

How many public servants does it take to fix a pothole? We have a mayor and eight city councilors, a city manager and an assistant city manager, and an entire Department of Public Services, but clearly that’s not enough. We might ask the police and fire departments and the parking-enforcers and garbage collectors — public workers who drive around town all the time — to give the road-maintenance crew a heads-up when they notice a big hole in the street, but apparently that’s too much to ask.

Potholes are outwitting hundreds of people whom we collectively pay millions of dollars to maintain public safety and infrastructure. The city’s solution: pay a software company in Connecticut ten grand for an app.

“This app is a great example of how a responsive city can utilize technology to simplify processes and empower its residents,” Mayor Mike Brennan is quoted as saying in the city’s press release. Actually, Mayor, the app is much more complicated than, say, making a phone call, or — envision this! — having city workers do their job in the first place.

Were people really feeling “disempowered” by the lack of this app? Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian seems to think so. “In this digital age, we must meet residents where they are – and they’re on their smart phones,” she’s quoted as saying.

Actually, Ms. Manager, there are thousands of people in the city who can’t afford a smartphone and its costly monthly bills. To the extent you’re relying on this app to fix problems, you are disempowering the poorest Portlanders and catering to the wishes of the wealthiest residents, whose streets will, one supposes, get more attention than those in the rougher parts of town.

To the extent this app helps city workers identify and fix problems, that’s all to the good, I guess. And I do like the fact the new program allows people to monitor progress made on the problems posted there. But officials acknowledge the app won’t significantly change the way the city responds to complaints. “It is important to note that not all issues will be able to be automatically fixed,” the press release reads. “Issues will be completed based on priority-level and budget status.”

In other words: We’ll get to it when we get to it, if we can get to it. You didn’t need a fancy app to get that answer. City Hall’s been using that line for centuries.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.