At Boston.gov, you don’t always get an answer
38 of 100 agencies didn’t respond to email queries
Boston.gov, the city of Boston’s official website, has the potential to make it quick and easy for citizens to get answers to questions, file complaints, and make requests for help to officials. But a test of the system found that it’s not unusual for simple emailed questions to fall on deaf ears at Boston City Hall.
Thirty-eight of the 100 city agencies, boards, commissions, and cabinets contacted in June and July ignored the inquiries sent to them.
The list of non-responders included the Boston Public Health Commission, the Boston Fire Department, Public Safety, Public Works, the Emergency Shelter Commission, Veterans Services, the Health and Human Services Cabinet, the Parks and Recreation Department, the Transportation Department, the Environment Department, the Boston Human Rights Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeal, and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission.
Emails sent to the Boston Housing Authority and the Boston Police Department bounced back as undeliverable, although the glitches were corrected after officials at the agencies were informed of them.
Caitlin McLaughlin, the spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission, said citizens can always call 311 for help, but the operator there didn’t have an answer to a question about where the hard-to-find shingles vaccine can be obtained.
Elizabeth Sullivan, the spokeswoman for Parks and Recreation, couldn’t pin down what happened at her agency. “What I will say is that we have a service-level agreement to answer emails within 24 hours, and in this case that service level was not met,” she said.
On average, the response time for the 62 city departments, cabinets, boards, and commissions that did respond to the email inquiries was 1.5 days.
Some of the laggards were the Arts and Culture Department, which took six weeks to respond; Immigrant Advancement, four days; Neighborhood Development, 3.5 days; and Fair Housing and Equity, 3.3 days.
A number of departments and commissions responded within an hour, including Animal Care and Control, the Boston Planning and Development Agency, the Boston Public Library, Public Records, Election, the Boston Finance Commission, Law, Property Management, and Tourism.
Mayor Marty Walsh’s office responded in timely fashion – seven hours — with a relevant link in response to a request for a copy of his state of the city address.
Ten of the 13 city councilor offices responded fairly quickly to the test emails. Ana Calderon, an aide to Councilor Ed Flynn, responded the next day to an email inquiring about services for homeless veterans by asking if a phone conversation could be arranged.
A Flaherty aide said the councilor would call back to discuss his office’s lack of response (he never did), while an O’Malley aide could not explain why no response was forthcoming.
Garrison’s online bio says one of her top priorities is supporting homeless veterans. The email sent to her sought information on where a homeless veteran could get help – the same question posed to Flynn’s office. After speaking with an aide about not getting a response, Garrison herself called, only to say, “I don’t want to do an interview with you” and then hung up.
City Clerk Maureen Feeney was asked for a list of home rule petitions filed by the city. She responded in just over two days.
Jeff Toister, author of Getting Service Right, said businesses and government agencies should respond to inquiries within an hour.“The old standard of one business day is out the window,” he said. “It comes from a time when people would check their personal email just once a day.”
Toister recommends government agencies say on their websites when citizens can expect to hear back. “When people know how long something is going to take, they are far less likely to grow impatient,” he said.