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Boston’s line for problems draws big following

Reports are up 35%, as residents make liberal use of city’s constituent service program

Stephanie Prashard answered the phone at the constituent service hot line at City Hall in Boston.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

From all corners of the city, the reports rush in, an endless catalog of civic concerns and complaints. Graffiti on a utility box in Dorchester. A traffic light out in West Roxbury. An abandoned car in Roslindale with an alarm that will not shut off.

Most reports sent by smartphone include a picture of the problem and a short message of varying urgency and tone. Some, such as “concrete chunk remove” from Newbury Street, are helpfully direct. Others express dwindling patience, like the plaintive Beacon Hill cry to “Please enforce trash rules!” or deadpan humor, like the petitioner for a sidewalk repair who drolly remarked “fell in this hole.”


Driven by a sharp increase in calls for service made via smartphone, the number of reports to Boston’s constituent service program has surged in recent years, rising 35 percent since 2010.

The tracking system collects reports made by phone, website, and mobile application and dispatches them to work crews across the city.

As Mayor Thomas Menino’s long tenure winds to a close, the program’s success as a conduit between residents and city government demonstrates his focus on quality-of-life issues and stands as a linchpin of his “urban mechanic” legacy.

“Many cities have this type of system, but Boston’s is so far ahead of everyone else,” said Alan Shark, who directs the Public Technology Institute, a Virginia-based group that focuses on technology issues in local government. “You can see the benefits.”

The rise in reports, climbing from 8,000 when the program debuted in 2008 to more than 150,000 last year, shows that residents are quick to identify problems if they believe the effort will not go to waste, city officials say.

Residents who submit reports receive a confirmation message that their complaint has been received and are given a tracking number, then are sent a second message when the case has been closed. Calls to the city’s 24-hour hot line are answered live, usually within seconds, and the city regularly calls people back to follow up.


The response gives residents confidence that their complaints, no matter how small-bore, will be taken seriously, a realization that can sharpen their sense of civic duty.

“This is what people in Boston do. When they see that pothole, they report it,” said Justin Holmes, who oversees the program as the city’s director of constituent engagement. “And we’re a better city for it.”

The program’s popularity marks a distinct turnaround from its inception, when the city struggled to get a full-fledged system up and running, and complaints routinely slipped through the cracks.

But over time, officials have fine-tuned and expanded the system, making it far more user-friendly, and reports have surged.

“People have greater confidence that the city takes this seriously,” Holmes said.

Residents are not the only ones filing reports. City employees make regular submissions, Menino foremost among them.

The mayor is “one of our most frequent callers,” Holmes said. “We hear from him all the time.”

Although the rising number of complaints would seem to bring more work to public works crews, city officials say the system has allowed them to cover more ground by steering reports to the right people in real time.

“Our constituents are our best eyes and ears out there,” Holmes said. “We rely on that. They are saving us an incredible amount of time.”


Matthew Mayrl, chief of staff for the city’s Public Works Department, which handles many complaints, said work orders are sent directly to road crews, along with exact locations, and that dramatically cuts down on travel time.

The system also allows supervisors to judge how crews are performing, and to determine what improvements need to be made.

“It has definitely made us more responsive to the public,” Mayrl said. “The data allows us to determine how quickly problems are being addressed.”

If everyday nuisances and eyesores draw plenty of grumblings, it is snowstorms that cause complaints to skyrocket. During the massive nor’easter in February, the city received nearly 19,000 snow-related reports.

Yet most complaints involve mundane issues, such as curbside pickup for items that cannot be collected as trash. Calls for removing bulk items, from refrigerators to old computer monitors, topped 21,000 last year, easily the largest category of reports. They were followed by complaints about potholes and streetlight outages.

As reports ping in from mobile phones, staff at the city’s hot line field hundreds of calls a day. On one morning, Northeastern University work-study students were manning the lines, providing information and forwarding complaints to the proper departments. The phone rarely stays silent for long.

“It’s ringing almost every 20 seconds,” said Megan Torres, an instant before another call came in. It was a man from Hyde Park, wanting to know how he could dispose of his yard clippings. He could put them in containers with yard-waste stickers, she said, and she could send him some stickers right away.


“If you get them today, you can put them out tomorrow morning,” she said after checking on his pickup day. “You’re very welcome.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at