Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reporting 101 - the basics

I'll assume that if you are reading this, you are either 

  • a vandal looking to see if your tags are being advertised on this site, 
  • a manager from an infrastructure company that has googled their own name, and found it mentioned here in correspondence
  • someone interested in having a go at improving our built environment
I hope you are the third.  If so, this post is for you.

If you have come to this blog, it's because you are no longer wearing a set of glasses that render all the problems around you invisible.  You've seen stuff that you don't like, and you want to do something about it.  You are an improver.

  • 1% of people deliberately mess stuff up
  • 98% of people ignore it, hoping somebody else will take care of it
  • 1% care enough to do something about it

Welcome to the 1%.

Right, you've started by noticing stuff.  I don't care what stuff interests you - you want that stuff to be better.  What next?

Get a camera.  

It doesn't matter whether it is a stand alone digital camera, or a camera within a mobile phone.  Get a camera that is compact and convenient enough for you to carry it with you when you are out and about.  There are quite a few makes and models on the market today that are as small and flat as a cigarette packet - I recommend getting one of them.

Picture quality does not really matter.  The main reason for taking photos is to jog your memory when you get home.  If you have a memory like mine (ie, like a goldfish), having a memory jogger is invaluable.  You can use a notepad if you prefer, but I have found photos to work best for me.  

I'll occasionally take video as well, if the situation warrants it.  I usually do that when I need to take notes.  I'll start the video and talk to the camera, describing the location and situation. 

You now have a camera.  You have it with you.

Now you need to take photos.

Get used to the fact that people will look at you oddly when you take photos of stuff that needs fixing.  What sort of person stops and photographs a street sign lying on the ground?  Only the insane, obviously.   Get used to being looked at every now and then like you are slightly odd.

In fact, you are odd.  You are one of the oddballs that notices stuff and cares enough to want it taken care of.  That is a rare trait.

When you take a photo of something, take several photos from different angles.  Try and photograph the street signs at the nearest cross-streets as well, so you'll remember where you took the photos.

You now have a bunch of photos.  What next?

Set aside some time to take care of them.  Depending on where you've been and how much stuff you've spotted, you might have a collection of a dozen things that need taking care of.  Or you might have only found one thing.  Who do you report it to, and how do you report it?

With luck, the "who" will be fairly obvious, and if you are unsure of how to report it, click on one of the links on this blog to see how I have reported things in the past.  That is, if you want to know how to contact Sydney Water, click on the Sydney Water link to see examples of how I have contacted them to date (and the results).

As for "how", that comes down to trust.  I trust the RTA website, but I don't trust calling them on the phone.  I trust calling my local council.  I trust calling Energy Australia - but I always ask Energy Australia to give me a reference number.  I never let them take the call without logging it while I am on the phone, and getting the reference number.

I don't trust Telstra.  I think the only way to get my message across will be to attend an AGM as a shareholder and see if I can ask a question from the floor.

If you don't trust an organisation to take care of something, put it in writing.  The less you trust them, the more formal your method.  A letter denotes the lowest form of trust - it is least likely to get lost, and most organisations have formal processes in place for dealing with snail mail.  A letter is a "serious" thing, and most organisations will treat it seriously.  You might not get the answer that you want, but you will get an answer most of the time.

If you don't know how to write a letter to an organisation, feel free to copy one of mine - that's why they are on this blog.  Just remember to put your address up the top - I have removed mine before posting the letters.

Whilst an email also puts your problem in writing, many organisations don't have good processes in place for dealing with them.  Companies are great at putting a "contact us" email address on their website, and then not telling anyone to check that mailbox on a daily basis.  Or the person who was originally tasked with checking that mailbox leaves, and doesn't do a proper handover to the next person in that position.  I have seen this happen time and time again - don't trust email!

Forms on websites can suffer the same fate.  Many systems interface with an email system, so when you lodge an online form, an email is sent to a particular mailbox.  If no one is looking at that mailbox, your form sits there unread and unactioned.  If you send an email or lodge a web based form, be prepared to follow up a month later via another method to check that your message got through.  

I usually find that I might have a number of things to report when I get home, so I review the photos and make a list - I open up Notepad or Word and jot down each item.  For instance, if I am calling Energy Australia, I'll go through the photos and write down the asset number of each kiosk, and then the nearest cross streets.  At times, I have listed 5 or 6 kiosks that need attention.  When I am on the phone to Energy Australia, I ask them to give me the reference number for each job, and I then type that next to each item.  Each kiosk will get a separate reference number - it's worth saving them, just in case.

After that, you wait.

Don't expect things to be fixed overnight.  It might takes weeks, or a month for something to happen.  If you go past whatever it is on a regular basis, keep an eye on it.  If nothing happens after a month, follow up.  Put a note in your diary if you like to follow up after 4 weeks.

In some cases, you will get a response.  The RTA will send you an email if you contact them via their website.  If you write a letter, you will generally get a letter back.  Your local Council may contact you, but don't count on it - it depends on how their processes work.  I've asked our Council to setup a system where they "close the loop" by informing people when things are fixed.  They're looking into it.

With Energy Australia, it's just a matter of eyeballing the kiosks each time you go past.  After a while, you'll notice fresh paint - that is all the feedback you are going to get.  Enjoy it until the next layer of graffiti is applied, and you have to call them again to ask for a repeat.

Telstra are a black hole, which is ironic, given that they are a communications company.  They never communicate back.  

The main thing is this - have a go.  You may find that you have called the wrong mob.  Don't worry - they might point you in the right direction.  It just means you might have to make two calls instead of one.  Is that so difficult?  Enjoy the challenge, enjoy the detective work that it takes to track down the right person to get something fixed.

And always remember this - almost every person you deal with will be grateful that you contacted them.  There are very few people out there that like looking at a mess.  They like seeing pot holes fixed or signs repaired or graffiti removed as much as you do.  You are doing them a favour or the community a favour, and most of them will appreciate what you are doing.  Just don't expect anyone to give you a gold star or a chocolate frog!

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