To Yelp at City Hall

Pub date May 22, 2012

By Anne Stuhldreher

OPINION If you attended any of the oodles of mayoral debates during last fall’s election, you surely heard every candidate say two things: One, that they’d make city government more accountable to San Franciscans — and two, that they’d harness technology to make city services better.

Now that Mayor Ed Lee is settled into office, there’s an easy and affordable way he can make good on this promise. It would give a megaphone to San Franciscans fed up (or delighted) with city services, letting them tell City Hall — and each other — what is and isn’t working with their tax dollars. It would amplify consumer power, increasing the responsiveness the public sector the way it has the private one.

San Francisco should be the first city to list all municipal services on one of the existing user-review websites that thousands of San Franciscans already rely on to critique restaurants, drycleaners, and auto repair shops. City Hall leaders would encourage all San Franciscans to get online and post reviews, to tell them what happens when they apply for a business license or send their kids to a city camp. Yelp and Citysearch are two user review sites that San Franciscans use right now.

This wouldn’t have a big price tag. Lee would simply mandate that every city service include a prominent icon on its web site asking users to “rate them” on the site. At every window and desk where public servants serve San Franciscans, there’d be a sign encouraging the public to share their experience on the site. Reviews on user review sites aren’t a feedback form sent to nowhere. People’s comments are seen by everyone.

Such open feedback has spurred thousands of businesses—from restaurants and retailers to doctors and dentists — to be more customer-focused and make better decisions with scarce resources.

Public servants and elected politicians are extremely keyed into public sentiment. They just often lack ways to gauge it. Feedback from public reviews would give them a clear picture of what successes they can tout and what problems they need to fix so they can benefit the most people and voters.

Imagine if you could look at online reviews before you went to apply for this permit or pay that fee. People would have written about good and bad times of day to go. They would have written about how much time it takes. They also would have written about which staff were friendly and which were rude.

I know I’d use it. I’d want to see what parks people think are good for toddlers and which ones are better for bigger kids. And what other parents think of different schools, camps, and pools. I’d also use it let the City know when I’ve called 311 three times to get an obscenity painted over in Dolores Park (that my kids walk by every day) but nothing has happened.

For inspiration, city leaders could look to the Family Independence Initiative, a coalition of working-class families in the Bay Area who grew frustrated after bad experiences with local programs. Nothing changed when the parents approached program leaders. So they set up an online rating system so parents could compare notes on services like childcare, job training, or after school-programs.

As decisions are made to dice up the shrinking budget pie to best serve San Franciscans, City Hall needs to hear from San Franciscans. Most city residents don’t have a lobbyist at city hall, but they have a lot to say.

Anne Stuhldreher is a Senior Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation