Washington D.C.’s city phone line is forever (but now) the place to report a problem

Across the Potomac, every weekday morning, a 912 number rings. If you call 912 there is a person who answers, who tells you about a problem you have and invites you to file a complaint.

You call 311 and an operator takes your complaint. You’re connected to a city representative, who takes your complaint and forward it to the appropriate agency.

Click on the call. 404 may also be available.

The history of 912 is one of frustration and inaction. In 2010, 912 was designated as a 311 hotline and now it serves all 4 million or so residents and businesses in Washington, D.C. if they’re looking for something from the government.

But if you’re calling to report a problem to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), a city department that regulates businesses and services in the District, the thing that hurts 912 the most is that when you say something to DCRA, you feel like your complaint is going nowhere.

In 2016, when WUSA9 asked if DCRA could improve the 912 line, the agency sent a memo to the 710 phone number that simply repeated “we’re sorry to hear that your customer satisfaction on 311 has been low. We are constantly reviewing customer service measures and working diligently to improve the entire 311 service.”

At the time, Mayor Muriel Bowser said that, with so many calls, DCRA was continuously challenging even the best staff on the street. But making those staff — and 1,500 more next year — better isn’t easy.

In August, the Metropolitan Police Department, which answers 912 calls, made the call 912 better. Shortly after the MPD announced it would give an early tip number on cases involving people’s “safety, well-being and property,” both 912 and 311 began offering an early tip line for citizens calling police reports.

The 912 line has also received praise for accepting multiple phone numbers in a call and routing those from 710 to a different line. A lot of that stems from personnel issue — which isn’t to say that DCRA staffers are bad people — but 912 still receives such complaints on a daily basis.

Still, when it comes to a vast public call-in service, it is up to us to improve the 912 line.

How?

Once in a while, the 912 line works well. I just celebrated my first 311 in 2013, and the 311 I know and love is something like 912 plus the smartphone app’s “our call taker is great.”

Every other time, there’s a wall of “no callers in this office, please” — if you ask for a number that will return the phone, the humans on duty won’t give it to you. If you ask for a man’s number, you get an answer to “call 911.” And in between all those excuses, I still get to wait because I am not a designated caller.

For everything else, 912 has one bit of advice I heard so many times over the past few years: Listen. Watch for open windows. If something stinks, use your voice. If there’s something wrong with that thing you just inspected, say so.

I can’t comment on how recently the 912 hotline has received maintenance upgrades because I have no contact with the organization. But if it has, I haven’t heard anything about it.

A DCRA rep wasn’t exactly able to explain how many crews the agency does employ — and if they’re finding employees more responsible than the drowsy ones I’ve heard stories about. The clerk said if I worked there and brought the broken phone line problems to their attention, I could try calling 311.

Since the 311 service is the city’s largest, well, that was both an unnecessary and lazy move. But I’m not going to. I know I won’t get anywhere.

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