Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Broken playground equipment

I'm hoping I haven't spoken too soon about how wonderful Canada Bay Council is when it comes to responding to problems.  In my last post, I described how I found a broken gate at a local playground recently, and all the other parents stood around talking about how it had been broken for weeks, but none of them did anything about it.

I revisited the site last night to check on progress and found that someone has done a bodgie job on the gate.  This gate should have four hoops in it - the one that is second from the left is missing.  Whoever "repaired" this gate has unscrewed the one on the far left and simply moved it across to the right a bit to fill in the gap.

Just one problem - there is still enough of a gap for kids to run through.  

Did I get angry and shake my fist at the nearest tree and curse the council?  Did I stamp my foot and kick the rubbish bin and rant and rave like a lunatic?

No.  I went home and emailed this photo to one of our councilors, along with a short explanation of the problem.  When I got home tonight, I found he'd replied and is onto it.  

Simple, as it should be.  Councilors are locals too - they live in the area, some of them have kids, and they understand these sorts of problems.  They are not remote figures who spend 3/4 of their life in Canberra.  

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dealing with councils

I know it's fashionable to knock local government - they're generally seen as corrupt, useless, hopelessly politicized and riven by factionalism and petty hatreds.  The general impression that you get from the media is that councils are so messed up, they make Iraq look like Switzerland. Council workers are often said to do less work than patients in a coma ward.

It's unfortunate that this is how many people think, because I've found local government around here to be pretty responsive.  It's worth remembering that the council where I live has less than 300 employees (it had even fewer last year - I have no idea why the numbers have jumped up, but that is a separate issue).  I have worked in organisations of many sizes, and I have always found that those that we around the 200-400 staff range were far and away the best performing, most efficient and most enjoyable places to work.  They're small enough for everyone to know everyone else, and if run well, the place runs on people talking to each other - as opposed to pushing paper from one desk to another.  People can get things done by simply picking up the phone, or yelling across the office, because the staff see each other enough to build up a level of trust that does not exist in a big organisation.  Formalities can be dispensed with.

It helps that we also have some active councillors.  I know that if you write to one of them, you can expect him to turn up on your doorstep to look at your problem with his own eyes.  These people are local - if you tell them about a problem in a certain spot, chances are they will know exactly where you are talking about, will understand the problem, and will get it fixed quickly. It might even be in the street where they live!

That's been my experience at least.  Your council on the other hand might be a collection of mongs.  If that's the case, run for office.  You only need a few thousand votes to get elected, and it does not cost much to run for local office.  

My local council, which is Canada Bay, makes life easier for residents by putting an awful lot of stuff onto their website - including forms that you can fill out on line to request various services.  The forms are not perfect, and some of them are very well hidden in the bowels of the site, but they've made a good first attempt, and it should only get better from here.  In the usual spirit of things, I have already suggested to council three improvements to their web form system:

  • When you submit a form, you get an automated email response from the system confirming that your form has been accepted.  My suggestion is that it needs to include a reference number in case you want to follow it up.
  • When you tell the council about a problem, they should contact you when it's fixed to let you know what they've done.  They need to close the loop, and it will help improve perceptions about them fixing stuff, and not being a bunch of mongs in a coma.
  • Everyone has a phone in their camera these days (except me - but I prefer to use a proper camera instead of a crummy phone camera).  Allow users to submit photos with their forms.
I'm told that all three suggestions will be included in the next release of the system (although I haven't been told when that will be coming out).  If that happens, I will give it the somebody else's problem tic of approval - ie, it will be SEPTIC.

Our council also has a fairly effective call centre that you can speak to about problems.  They're based just down the road from me, rather than in India, so if I tell them that there is an issue 200 metres from their office, they can wander out at lunchtime and see for themselves.  

I'll give you a recent example of dealing with council.

I was at a local playground with the family.  When we arrived, I noticed that the gate to the playground had a few missing panels - it appears that someone had ripped them out.  That rendered the gate useless - kids of 2 and 3 were walking straight through the hole in the gate and heading for the road outside.

Just as we were about to open the gate (adults still needed to open it to get through), one of the other parents made an exasperated noise about the gate and said that, "It's been like that for at least two weeks."

I felt like removing the gate and whacking him over the head with the remains of it.  If he knew that the gate was broken, why didn't he do something about it?

Somebody else's problem I guess.  It was actually at that moment that I resolved to create this blog.

I bit my tongue, and made a mental note to report the problem to council when I got home.

Which is what I did.  I used the online form and got a lovely email back to say that someone will look into it.  I have faith that they will, because I have reported some breakages in that park in the past, and they have all been sorted out quickly.

But I'm still going to check.  As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify".

As for that father that knew about the problem, but failed to act......... let me just say that I would be very annoyed if I found that his kid ran through the gate, out onto the road and was hit by a passing car - and he then sued the council for not doing anything.  Accept some responsibility!  Take some action!  It's not like you have to drive down to Bunnings to buy the hardware to fix it yourself - just report it and let council take care of it.  Is it that hard to pick up the phone, or fill out an on line form?

Making things like playgrounds safe is not somebody else's problem!  Aaaarrggh!

Maritime NSW

There is a park in Drummoyne that I go through on a regular basis.  It's a nice big park - right on the water, and equipped with a good boat ramp, a footy ground, a playground and plenty of room for dogs, kids, cricket games and all that sort of thing.  It's also quite well used, and unfortunately, it cops a bit of abuse.

The problem is that the abuse never seems to get cleaned up.  All the rubbish bins have been vandalised - I noticed one had been ripped from its setting recently and tossed into the harbour.  Even plaques dedicated to former mayors of the suburb have been vandalised.

You don't want to know about the toilets and the stands around the oval.

The bins and toilets didn't really surprise me.  What did surprise me was vandalism around the boat ramp.  The boat ramp itself is pretty immune to damage - you'd need a case of dynamite to put a dent in it, but the signage around it is suffering.  

Now the boat ramp in question is pretty popular with boaties.  Whenever I go through the car park, there are a couple of empty boat trailers there, and I occasionally see a boat being winched into or out of the water.  Why have none of these people bothered to report the damage around the ramp which is so apparent?  

Here is my response to just one small bit of damage.

---------------------------------

20 April 2009

 Mr Steve Dunn

A/CEO

Maritime NSW

Locked Bag 5100
Camperdown NSW 1450

  

Dear Mr Dunn

 Vandalised signage at boat ramp in Five Dock

 I am writing to you because it is unclear from your website who I should be addressing this to.

 The photo below was taken at the boat ramp at Taplin Park, off Bayswater St in Five Dock Bay.  Can you please arrange to have to repaired or removed


-------------------------

I got a letter back not long after to say that they'd fixed it.  I wasn't really that worried about the sign - what worried me was how hard it was to figure out how to contact the right person at Maritime NSW (their website is a dog in this regard), and that it seems that they are rarely patrolling their turf.  If someone from Maritime NSW did a regular sweep through this boat ramp say once a week or so, they'd quickly pick up on problems like this and fix them.

But I guess they are all too busy having coffee at Liquidity to get out and actually check on their infrastructure.  If they won't get out of the office to have a look, we'll just have to do it for them.  My big hope here is that someone in Maritime NSW thinks, "Gee, we should get out more regularly to check that everything is ok at our ramps".

Personally, I doubt it, but now that I know who to write to, I can continue to dig into my stamp pile to annoy him until they start to be proactive rather than reactive.  Simple vandalism like this really detracts from what is otherwise a lovely spot.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Anzac Bridge

I generally don't trust contacting any organisation via their website or email anymore.  Telephone contact can also be pretty useless.  If you want to get things done, create a paper trail.  I once setup a website contact system for a big government corporation - I checked on it a few months later and found that the mailbox that we'd created for the website was stuffed full of queries, but none of the emails had been read.  The person who had been assigned the task of reading them had moved on, and not handed over to the next person the job of reading and responding to the emails on a daily basis.  There were thousands of unread emails in there that had to be followed up.

I bet they just deleted the lot and hoped that everyone forgot about them.

I've found over the years that this sort of thing seems to be common in government departments, mainly because these emails are not revenue generators.  The private sector tends to take more notice, as these sorts of emails might turn into valuable sales contacts.  If nothing else, hungry salespeople will make sure someone is looking through the emails.

That said, I did test out the RTA website not long ago.  I took this photo just before ANZAC Day this year - it shows the plinth where the statue of the NZ soldier now stands.  I ducked around to the site a week before the unveiling out of curiosity.  One thing I immediately noticed was the presence of a couple of graffiti tags around the site - one is visible in the bottom right hand corner.

Now that really ticked me off.  This was about to become the site of a war memorial - something that deserves to be a sacred site in my opinion.  Having graffiti in such a location is just not on.  I can just imagine how the RSL representatives would have felt about it.

So I jumped onto the RTA website and let them know about it, half expecting to revisit the site after the statue had been raised to find it still there.  

Imagine my surprise when I got this email response from the RTA shortly afterwards:

-----------------------

Ref: GE08/2382

Dear NOTSEP

I refer to your email concerning the graffiti near Anzac Bridge.

The graffiti was removed on 22 April 2008.

Thank you for bringing this matter to the attention of the RTA.

Kind regards

An RTA person

RTA Customer Services

------------------------------

So it just goes to show that maybe these agencies are getting better at using the internet for customer service.  Personally, I don't trust them - I've seen too many missives vanish into cyberspace to put any faith in them.  But that shouldn't stop you from having a go if you don't feel like forking out 50 cents for a stamp, and making the hike to the letter box.

In this case, a successful conversion of an SEP into action.  I'm actually a bit proud of this one.  I drove past as the statue was being raised onto its plinth a day or two before the unveiling, and I thought that at the very least, his site was being respected.

I could have strangled the blasted RTA project manager though - imagine being in charge of a site like that, and not noticing vandalism.  The people in RTA customer services that processed my email saved his bacon.

Figuring out who to contact

There are times when I spot a bit of infrastructure like this and I have to spend a bit of time trying to figure out who to contact.  It looks like some sort of power system, so my first thought was an electricity utility, but after studying it more closely, it turns out that it is an RTA lighting control box.  

I have of course been too bone idle to tell them about this.  I know that no one else is going to let them know, since it is right next to a Housing Commission block.  Given that many of the houses in the vicinity have been tagged on the outside, I'd have to say that the local residents don't give a bugger about somebody else's property.  They don't even seem to care about their own.

Sigh.  Often half the battle seems to be getting locals to overcome their apathy.

RailCorp

This one is going to be interesting.  Although RailCorp are usually pretty good about quickly removing graffiti from their trains and stations, they can sometimes be pretty sluggish about cleaning up their infrastructure.  

-----------------------------

13 May 2008

 Customer Relations Unit

RailCorp

PO Box K349

Haymarket NSW 1238

 

 Dear Sir/Madam

 Removal of graffiti from railway structures in Leichhardt

 The photo below shows some of the graffiti that has been sprayed on the overbridge at Charles St, Leichhardt.  The closest cross street is Darley Road.  Graffiti has also been sprayed underneath the bridge (not visible in this photo).




Please arrange to have the graffiti removed from both structures. 

 Yours sincerely

Not somebody's problem.

--------------------------

The thing that gets me about RailCorp is that they have to do routine inspections of all their bridges, track and so on.  It's not like they do these inspections every 5 years - they get done numerous times per year.

Given that's the case, I can't work out why a bridge inspector could have looked at this bridge and not gone, "Hmmm, needs a spot of cleaning", and not gone back to the office and organised it.  I have been going under this bridge on an irregular basis for several years now, and graffiti has never been removed from it.

I also took this photo from an RTA footbridge.  It's a long story, but some time back, I also got the RTA to repaint the footbridge that I took the photo from. (In fact I think that is where my career as a serial annoyer took root).  Now just imagine you are an RTA painting crew that has been sent along to paint out graffiti on an RTA structure, and you spend all day painting it and occasionally looking up at the rail bridge not 30 yards away.  That rail bridge is also covered in graffiti.

You'd think that there'd be a small chance that a lightbulb would go off in someone's head and they'd go, "Let's call RailCorp and let them know that their bridge needs doing as well.  Let's see if we can get everything in this area cleaned up at once.  That way, it might reduce the incidence of vandalism on both their structures and ours if we can show that we mean business".

Umm, no.  Just goes to show how well government agencies talk to each other.  Actually, that is no surprise to me as I did work in for a while, and the various divisions within one agency didn't even talk to each other, so expecting them to talk to outside agencies is a bit fanciful.  Just get used to the idea that the public service is not some enormous mass of people all working together to make our life better.  It is an enormous cluster of silos where information is never passed from once silo to another.  Co-operation is something that kids do on Sesame Street.  It is the ultimate home of the SEP.  The only way to get around that is to make it somebody's problem.

Hence the sending of letters.  Public agencies are hamstrung when it comes to letters - they have to respond.  They have no choice.  Put your tax dollars to work - annoy someone in a good cause.

Australia Post

I sent this letter off approximately two weeks ago - still waiting for a response from Australia Post.  I'll scan it and put it up if I ever get one, or I'll put up another photo of the letter box if they ever get around to cleaning it up.

----------------------------

Australia Post Customer Service Centre
PO Box 1018
STRAWBERRY HILLS NSW 2012

11 May 2008

 

Dr Sir/Madam

 Vandalism of letter boxes

 The photo below is an example of the state of many of the letter boxes around the inner west in Sydney.  This letter box was vandalised some months ago, and it appears that no effort has been made to clean it up.  This particular letter box is on the corner of Victoria and Lilyfield Roads, Lilyfield.


Given that every letter box is supposed to be emptied once a day by a contractor or Australia Post employee, I am amazed that your assets could continue in this state for so long.  Are your contractors and staff bothering to report vandalism so that it can be taken care of, and are you bothering to take action against graffiti – or do you not give a bugger?

 I would appreciate it if you could ensure that your staff are reporting instances of vandalism wherever they find it, and that their reports are followed up and acted upon.  Would you have any faith in an organisation that allows its front line assets to be left in this condition?

 The post office in Five Dock also needs a cleanup – there has been graffiti on the outside wall for months.

 Yours sincerely

Not somebody else's problem

Energy Australia

Energy Australia - where do we start?

Their substations are all over our suburbs.  Once you know what to look for, you start to see them everywhere - like mushrooms after rain.  Every second street seems to have one, and all of them seem to have graffiti on them.  Here is a small selection that I photographed on one afternoon in the space of less than an hour.  I don't have a map of where they are - I just meander around the place in my travels and spot them as I go.  If I can photograph this many by just wandering around, and find that all of them are vandalised, well I guess it just goes to show the scope of their problem.








That's the bad news.

The good news is that every one of these has a visible reference number on the outside.  If you scroll back up and look at the photos, you'll see a silver number in some of them, like K2501.

The other good news is that if you ring Energy Australia on 13 15 35 and report either the location or the reference number, they will fix the problem.  It might not be overnight, but they will do it.  They don't seem to be the sort of organisation that says, "Yeah, we'll fix that", and then bins your complaint.  They actually do something about it.

The one drawback is if you need to report multiple problems.  Their computer system only seems to be able to deal with one complaint at a time.  I got around that by doing this:

-----------------------------------

Mr George Maltabarow

Managing Director

Energy Australia
Level 22

570 George St

Sydney NSW 2000

2 February 2008

 Dr Mr Maltabarow

 Cleanup of graffiti on substations in the inner west

 I am writing in reference to the state of the Energy Australia substations in the Five Dock/Drummoyne/Concord area.  Most, if not all of your substations in the area have been heavily vandalised by graffiti. 

I reported one substation at the corner of Park Rd and Second Ave, Five Dock last month via 13 15 35.  It was quickly repainted, but as I explained when I made the call, all the substations in the area should be inspected and painted if necessary.  Apart from the substation mentioned above, I am yet to see one that is still in pristine condition. 

I’d appreciate it if you’d arrange for your crews to inspect and re-paint if necessary all the substations in our area. 

 Yours sincerely

Not somebody else's problem

-----------------------------------------

I got a very nice response to that letter.  The interesting thing is that the day before the letter arrived, I spotted one of their crews already on the job painting a substation nearby.  

One small gripe that I do have is with the Energy Australia phone system.  You have to put up with punching in an awful lot of numbers before you get to speak to a real person.  But at least you do end up with a real person in the end, and those that I have dealt with have been very pleasant and helpful.

Energy Australia appear to be in the same boat as Telstra, and all the other utilities.  All their equipment is remotely monitored these days, so there is no longer a need to send a crew around on a regular basis to perform site inspections.  Their problem is that their remote sensors can only monitor the state of the equipment within the substation - load, temperature, voltage - that sort of thing.  They can't monitor the outside of the substation - that takes either a set of cameras mounted at sufficient distance to view each wall, or the good old Mark I eyeball.  Installing cameras would cost us taxpayers a bomb, so you are doing your wallet a favour by doing their external monitoring for free.  If you have a substation nearby and it is being vandalised, just remember that Energy Australia aren't going to magically find out about it.  

Don't rely on someone else to report it - if you have read this far, it proves that you are more interested and less lazy than 99.999% of the population.  It's up to you to report it.  Don't let it become somebody else's problem.

Telstra - waiting for action

Here are two photos of the Telstra exchange in Five Dock - the area facing the street has been nicely done over by the local louts.  



I spent a fruitless 15 minutes searching the Telstra web site looking for someone to tell about this.  The website lists plenty of contacts if you want to organise a phone line or an ADSL service, but there is nothing about actually contacting the company.  I tried reading annual reports and that sort of thing in an effort to find someone to contact.

No joy.

I have no idea where I eventually got this contact info from, but I wrote a letter addressed thus:

-----------------------------------

20 April 2008 

Mr Sol Trujillo

CEO

Telstra

242 Exhibition Street

Melbourne VIC 2000

Dear Mr Trujillo

 Vandalised Telstra exchange in Five Dock, Sydney 

I am writing to you because it is unclear from your website who I should be addressing this to. 

The Telstra exchange building on Great North Road, Five Dock, NSW has been extensively vandalised with graffiti.  Please arrange to have it cleaned up.  It looks like a crack den, which is a poor reflection on your company. 

Yours sincerely

NOTSEP

-------------------

That was put into a letter box over a month ago, and I still haven't had a response.  That makes Telstra the slowest responding organisation that I have dealt with to date.  I haven't been past the exchange for over a week, so they might have done something about it and not contacted me yet (assuming that they will contact me at all)....... or they might be confused about this paper thing that has arrived via snail mail - Telstra being a high tech company and all that.  

Some might say that I should have contacted them via one of their call centres, but I have had enough dealings with their call centres on both a personal and professional level to know that calling Telstra on the phone is an exercise in frustration and frequently a waste of breath.  The organisation is so large and disjointed and specialised that I would probably have been bounced from call centre to call centre in a futile search for someone that deals with vandalism of Telstra property - that's happened to me before when I've called them about a data line problem.

I've still got about 20 stamps left, and I've put an entry in my diary to hit them again next week if they haven't done something about it.  

I find it fascinating that we often accuse government agencies of being slow, useless bureaucracies, but on the whole, most of those that I have contacted have been as quick to respond as private companies, and all have beaten Telstra by a country mile.

The problem Telstra has with these exchanges is that none of them are staffed anymore.  They probably don't have a real, warm-blooded Telstra employee within miles of any of them.  Everything is done remotely, so no one from the company walks in the front door any more, looks around the building and thinks, "This looks terrible - I'd better get it fixed".  Even if someone does front up to do some work, chances are they are a contractor, and they won't give a fig about how the place looks - it's not their problem, and they certainly won't be bothered to report it to anyone at Telstra.

Telstra is therefore probably quite dependent on the neighbours reporting problems with their exchanges.  If they had any sense, they'd letter drop the neighbours and give them a fridge magnet with a number to call in case of problems, and perhaps even send them a voucher for something every time they reported a problem.  But of course they don't.  There is no one left inside Telstra to give a bugger about these buildings any more - they've all been downsized, outsourced, rightsized, re-organised and retrenched, so it's over to us to beat Telstra over the head until they fix it.

There is no "somebody" at Telstra when it comes to somebody else's problem - the staff have all been taken out by a management neutron bomb.  So make it your problem to get it fixed.

"Broken windows" theory of crime

I found this article somewhere on the internet last year.  Unfortunately, I have lost the link.  The simple concepts outlined here have been a major influence on my thinking about cleaning up our area.  The only thing that I can add to it is this - you can't sit around waiting for government (of any level) to take action.  That is a recipe for disaster.  You don't need a committee.  You don't need a grant.  You don't need to create an inter-agency task force.  You don't need a summit of the brightest and best.  You don't need "community leaders" and social workers and all that tripe.

You just need you.  You just need you to get up off your date and take responsibility for ensuring that damage is reported to whomever is responsible for fixing it, and then following them up if they don't get onto it in a timely basis.  This is not an imposition on their time - most government organisations, and larger private companies, have people who are paid to fix things like this, and they have money in their budget to spend on the repairs.  They are sitting their at their desks, reading the paper and wondering how they are going to spend their budget for maintenance before the end of the financial year.  You are doing them a favour by giving them something to do.  Be nice - pick up the phone and put someone to work.  You don't even have to get up off the couch to do it.

--------------------

Unsociable behaviour is a community-wide concern and is not restricted to public paths and other public spaces. It is important that all public spaces be presented as ‘cared for spaces’. That way the community perceives them as wanted and looked after areas and not waste zones. The maintenance of public spaces is an important issue world wide.

James Q. Wilson and George Kelling2 developed the `broken windows' thesis to explain the signalling function of neighbourhood characteristics. This thesis suggests that the following sequence of events can be expected in deteriorating neighbourhoods. Evidence of decay (accumulated rubbish, broken windows, deteriorated building exteriors) remains in the neighbourhood for a reasonably long period of time. People who live and work in the area feel more vulnerable and begin to withdraw. They become less willing to intervene to maintain public order (for example, to attempt to break up groups of rowdy teens loitering on street corners) or to address physical signs of deterioration.

Sensing this, teens and other possible offenders become bolder and intensify their harassment and vandalism. Residents become yet more fearful and withdraw further from community involvement and upkeep. This atmosphere then attracts offenders from outside the area, who sense that it has become a vulnerable and less risky site for crime.

The "broken window" theory suggests that neighbourhood order strategies such as those listed below help to deter and reduce crime.

 􀂚 Quick replacement of broken windows

 􀂚 Prompt removal of abandoned vehicles

 􀂚 Fast clean up of illegally dumped items, litter and spilled garbage

 􀂚 Quick paint out of graffiti

 􀂚 Finding (or building) better places for teens to gather than street corners or ‘waste land or creating spaces for physical, creative and productive activities

 􀂚 Fresh paint on buildings

 􀂚 Clean footpaths and gutters 

This explanation of the "broken window" theory was written by Henry G. Cisneros when he was US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It was published in a series of essays titled "Defensible Space: Deterring Crime and Building Community" - January 1995.

In suburban areas such as those bordering the easements, another action would be regular maintenance of public and private gardens3

RTA - Iron Cove Bridge

A lesson in how to get the RTA to clean up its infrastructure.

The Iron Cove Bridge is a major bridge here in the inner west.  It carries a lot of vehicle and pedestrian traffic, as it is part of the premier walking trail in the area.  Pedestrians get second class service, being routed under the bridge via a narrow, badly lit walkway.  That walkway also happens to be very prone to graffiti.  In fact the whole bridge gets tagged from time to time, but the RTA only seems to care about painting over those bits that are visible to motorists.  

The first photo here shows what the underside of the bridge looked like after I asked them to clean it up.

The second photo shows what it looked like before the paint job, and sadly, what it is starting to look like again now.  Taking care of graffiti at a site like this is a bit like painting the Harbour Bridge - you start at one end, get to the other, then start at the other end all over again.  Doing it once is not a solution - it needs to be painted on a regular basis (unfortunately).  The taxpayer in me winces at what it must cost to slap a coat of paint over areas like this, but it just has to be done.
The third photo was taken after the initial paint job was done - it shows some of the beams above head height.  Either the painting crew didn't bother to look up when  they turned up to do the job, or they figured that no one would notice if they didn't do it properly.


Unfortunately for them, there are people like me who notice these things.



















Here's how I got it cleaned up.

I started by going to the RTA website in order to find out who to write to, and that was a complete waste of time.  Some of these agencies do their best to ensure that they don't tell you anything about anyone working there, including the CEO and senior management.

I then tried the NSW government directory, which told me everything I needed to know - who the CEO was, how to contact them etc etc.  I've found from bitter experience that going through the call centre with some of these agencies is a waste of a phone call.  Until they can ensure that calling the call centre will actually result in some action, I recommend going to the top.  If we annoy the top bloke often enough, he might get around to sorting out the call centre.

Here's the text of my first letter, sent on 2 Feb 2008:
------------------------------

Mr Les Wielinga

Chief Executive

Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW
P.O. Box K198, Haymarket 1240

2 February 2008

Dr Mr Wielinga

Cleanup of graffiti under the Iron Cove Bridge

I am writing in reference to the state of the pedestrian underpass at the Balmain end of the Iron Cove Bridge.  The walls of the underpass have been heavily vandalised by graffiti.

I reported this last month via the “contact us” section of your website, but I have had no response from the RTA to date.  

I’d appreciate it if you’d arrange for a crew to re-paint the underpass area on a regular basis (unfortunately, I doubt that painting it once will deter the little sods). 

Yours sincerely

[Not Somebody Else's Problem]

---------------------------------------------------------


Here's the response to my first letter, which the RTA sent back 2 days later.  Like he said, he'll get it looked into.  

If you are going to write a letter, it's important to get some of the small things right.  Lay it out properly.  Spellcheck it.  And put the subject matter in bold at the start.  The people who are paid to process and respond to these letters love that sort of thing - it shows that it was not written by a complete nutter (as many of them are).  Address it properly - show the guy some respect.  He's the CEO after all - an important guy.  Most of all, be nice.  There's no point in being stroppy.  Stroppy letters go right to the bottom of the pile (I know, because I once had a job where I had to write the replies for a large government agency).

We then have a response from Les Wielinga, the CEO, two weeks or so later, saying that the graffiti has been painted over - and he was right, as I went past it a bit before that and noticed that a cleanup had been done.

Note the three points made in his letter:

  • offensive graffiti will be gone within 48 hours (assuming someone tells them)
  • non-offensive graffiti will take up to a month to remove (fair enough, but someone still needs to let them know)
  • low visibility graffiti is given a low priority, unless the public gets onto them (I'm not sure how graffiti under the Iron Cove Bridge can be 'low visibility' when thousands of people walk or run past it every day, but I guess graffiti is only visible to the RTA if it can be seen by someone in a car)
Everything in this letter pre-supposes that someone will contact the RTA and tell them to get on with it.  Which is a major reason for why I put this site together - you can't just assume that the RTA Operations people will 'magically' know that graffiti or damage has appeared somewhere.  They're sitting in a building miles away, and it doesn't even have any windows!  How are they supposed to know that a problem has appeared on your street if you don't flipping well tell them!

After a couple of months, I noticed the graffiti started to appear again, so I wrote once more asking for another cleanup to be done.  I of course save all my letters on my home PC so that I just call up the last one, change the guts of it, save it as something else, print it and post it.  

The response here is a bit "duh!" to me.  Yes, graffiti does keep appearing - that's the single most annoying thing about it.  It never really goes away - there is no single battle to be won.  Combating graffiti is an endless campaign, and I would have thought that these guys would have the sense to understand that, and conduct regular maintenance patrols of places that have been hit by graffiti previously.  

My response has been to go to the Post Office and buy $10 worth of stamps, so I have enough stamps to send them letters for the next year or two.  Unfortunately, that's probably the only way to get them to do regular cleanups.  They may surprise me by commencing regular cleanups off their own bat, but I'll believe that when I see it.  Until then, I'll just keep sending letters when something needs to be done.  I'm not going to assume that someone at the RTA is taking care of it.  Like many bureaucracies, the place is probably stuffed with people that believe that taking care of it is somebody else's problem.

Police Station

Some vandals have become so brazen, they have no fear of hitting the Five Dock Police Station.  Some minor graffiti was scrawled on the outside of the station a few months ago, but much to my surprise, it wasn't spotted and cleaned off the day after it happened.  It wasn't cleaned off the day after that either.

After a week of looking at it every time I went past, I reported it to the local area manager.  It was fixed the next day.

But here is what I discovered about Police management.  Stations like this one, which are only staffed part time, no longer appear to have anyone in charge of them.  The Police hierarchy may dispute that, but I walked into the station one day to report a different problem and asked to see the Station Commander.  The response from the Constable behind the counter was "We don't have one".

So I asked to see the Officer in Charge (who might be a Sergeant or Senior Constable).  Same response - they didn't have one.  When I asked who was in charge that day, he looked around at the gaggle of Probationary Constables that were sitting around drinking cups of tea, and shrugged his shoulders.

As far as he (and the rest of them) was concerned, it was somebody else's problem.  

So you can't assume that graffiti will be noticed by the Police, and any action taken by them.  They sometimes don't even lift a finger when their own premises are hit.

I also found out something else - stations like this are now maintained by contractors.  There are  no internal maintenance staff, like painters and plumbers, left in the administration wing of the Police Force.  So the poor old cops can't just pick up the phone anymore and dial someone in maintenance and get them to pop around with a tin of paint and a rag to fix things.  It has to go through a Contract Manager, who contacts the contractor, who may or may not do the work (depending on whether they have been paid recently).

In each Command (LAC, or Local Area Command) there appears to be a LAM, or Local Area Manager, who is responsible for dealing with this administrative type stuff.  All you have to do is look up the White Pages, call your nearest Police Station and ask to be put through to the LAM.  If they have no idea what you are talking about, ask to talk to the LAC - that's the big chief in the area.  They should know who that is, and should get in a panic if you ask to talk to them.  Five Dock is an offshoot of Burwood Station, which is the main station for this area, and the LAM works out of Burwood.  This might be the same in other areas, where there is a main station and some satellite stations around it.  

I found that the Burwood LAM was very responsive once she knew about the problem, but until I rang and reported it, no one had let her know!

Like I keep on saying, the Police working from this station either failed to notice the vandalism, or they did and figured that "somebody else" would take care of it.  The same old story - somebody else's problem.

Took me about 2 minutes to get it fixed.

Schools

Some of the external signage of the Five Dock Public School was vandalised last month.  This happens every now and then, and from what I can gather, it gets cleaned up by members of the "Friends of Five Dock", who are the type of parents that get involved in their children's school.  All it takes is a bit of turps and a rag and perhaps a step ladder - and the desire to make a difference.

I was a bit slow off the mark with this one - the first step is letting someone know about it.  In this case, the school administration.  Their email address can be discovered by doing a quick bit of Googling, and in the past I've found that if you let the school know about these things, they are taken care of pretty quickly.

Like I said, I was slow off the mark here, and this graffiti hung around for weeks.  I'm not altogether sure why none of the teachers noticed it (probably because they all drive to school rather than walk, and therefore go past the outside of the school too quickly to notice any problems), and I also don't know why a parent didn't notice it and report it.  

I guess the answer is the same as always - many probably did notice it, but they all decided it was somebody else's problem.

NAB - approaching a bank

There are any number of old fashioned shopping areas in the inner west - the type that are based around a strip of shops along the street, as opposed to a mall or an arcade.

Most of these shopping areas have one or more banks, and some banks are better than others at keeping their premises looking neat and tidy.  In the old days, banks used to build robust, imposing buildings out of stone in order to present an image of solidity and stability - particularly financial strength.  The bankers of old understood the importance of presenting a solid face to those that they were seeking deposits from.

Some modern bankers seem to have forgotten this idea.  In the Five Dock area, there are three bank branches, some mortgage brokers and a credit union.  The NAB is the only financial institution occupying what I would call "old fashioned" or traditional banking premises - check out those columns around the front door.  
The building might be old fashioned, but the management at this establishment don't seem to take much interest in appearances.  Graffiti tags appeared on the front and sides of the building some time ago, and nothing was done about them.

Nothing that is until I rang the general telephone enquiries number for NAB, which I found at this web site, and it happens to be 13 22 65 by the way.  I simply explained to the person that took my call that the bank had been vandalised and the facade needed cleaning up.  I suggested that they contact their building management or property management staff, or the branch manager, and get it fixed.

The front was cleaned or repainted within 2 days.  Not bad going if you ask me for a big lumbering business.  

However, since then, graffiti has re-appeared in the laneway down the side.  Keeping this area clean is a simple matter of the manager walking around the building once every few days - or even just keeping an eye out whilst going out for lunch.  It doesn't take much more than that - except that someone needs to be bothered to spend a few minutes putting in a work request via the appropriate channels, and sometimes that seems to be too much to ask.

Why is it that things like this are not cleaned up until a member of the public complains?

Presumably because those working in the bank think it is somebody else's problem.

I can see that I am going to have to hassle these guys again soon.

NSW government graffiti website

Some useful links regarding cleaning up graffiti can be found here.  

A book on preventing graffiti and vandalism

Until I did a bit of Googling, I had no idea this book existed - "Preventing graffiti and vandalism".

Here is a crucial quote for members of the general public (like you and me):

Wilson concludes that it came down to people's lack of a feeling of ownership - and therefore lack of responsibility - for the welfare of public parts of an estate. One solution would be instilling this sense of ownership.

Ownership - a lot of the problems that we have with cleaning up our built environment can be traced back to that word.  Why should I bother with chasing up say Energy Australia to clean up a substation when I don't own it?

Don't take the attitude that you don't own it.  It's public property - it is owned by the state, which means it is owned by all of us, and none of us.  I don't take that view anymore - I take the view that my taxes paid for that substation, so although I own about one five-millionth of it, I am going to take responsibility for that part of it which faces the public - the outer layer.  Forget about owning the innards of that substation, or the structure of that concrete road bridge.  We, the tax paying public, or the nearby residents, we own the outside surface.  We own it because we have to look at it.  It does not belong to vandals.  It belongs to what used to be termed "the respectable middle and lower classes".   

It is ours.  We are responsible for it.  If you think you qualify for membership of the "respectable middle class", then stick up for your surroundings and make those responsible for vandalised or degraded property take an interest in cleaning it up.  

Don't wait for the State.  You'll be waiting a very long time.

Why call it NOTSEP?

Here are some propositions:

  • We have allowed parts of our built environment to decay or become trashed
  • People walk, run or drive past this mess every day, and they see it, but they never do anything about getting it cleaned up - because it is somebody else's problem to take care of it
  • No it's not.  Nothing will ever be done about it unless someone takes an active interest in fixing it.  
  • Don't hang around waiting for someone else to take action - get off your bum and take some action of your own.  It's really not that hard.
So there you have it in a nutshell.  This blog will hopefully act as a guide to anyone else who has become sufficiently steamed up about what they see around them, but has never known what to do about it.  

If you want things to improve, the first step is to accept that it is not somebody else's problem.  That's the hard part.  Once you can accept that, everything else is a breeze.

What is this blog about?

I am not a tree hugger by nature.  Living in the inner west, there really aren't that many trees nearby to hug anyway.  What we do have though is a lot of built environment - buildings, walls, bridges, structures, posts, roads and so on, and that has become the forgotten environment.  Which is odd, since that is the environment that 90% of us live in.  We live in suburbs of varying density, but the common feature of all of them is that there are bits that need looking after - and they aren't being looked after.  The Greenies can go hug whales and things - I'm more into getting pot holes filled in and graffiti covered walls cleaned up and abandoned cars towed away.  

I'm not terribly into doing that myself mind you - mainly because there is so much to be done, it's a full time job for 10 people in our area alone.  Instead, what I do is pester the people who do have a responsibility for keeping our built environment in a descent condition.  Building owners, Councils, authorities of various sorts, government agencies, businesses, tenants and so on.  What I have found is that in most cases, the people responsible for our built environment are so physically distant from it, they have no idea what condition it is in.  They simply need a gentle prod from time to time to get out of their distant ivory towers and come out and scrub up the stuff in our suburb.  So that's what I do - I act as a pair of eyes for what you might term "absentee landlords".  

Not all of them appreciate that of course, but that's not my problem.  That's somebody else's problem.