311twit.jpgA pipe leaking water had apparently been gushing for days at Golden Gate and Steiner before a local resident reported the problem to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. A few hours later, the problem was solved by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. What might have once merited a line item in ChronicleWatch, however, gets 300 words — because it was reported on celebrity plaything Twitter.

“This is a great example of how public agencies are improving customer service and response using social media like Twitter,” SFPUC’s Tony Winnicker told the Chronicle. It’s certainly the party line from the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who’s made “customer service” a priority since his days sponsoring 1998’s Proposition B and has championed the use of services like 311, Twitter, and using Twitter to contact 311 and has appointment power to the SFPUC.

Never mind that it took someone a few days to actually bring it up, that the tweet was directed at the wrong department, and that 311 wasn’t involved at all — I have a feeling the anecdote will be duly noted by Newsom campaign staffers as yet another sign of how the mayor is solving San Francisco’s problems with this exciting new technology. But really, when leaky pipes are wasting fresh water, are Web sites and text messages the solution?

Fielding complaints from Twitter, 311, et al. at best keeps the agency responding to symptomatic problems, not larger issues like decaying infrastructure.Note that the problem would probably have been caught eventually through a routine inspection by Rec and Park staffers. Problem is, thanks to budget cuts proposed by the mayor, there are fewer Rec and Park staffers to go around, even while executives are being hired left and rightto come up with cutting-edge ideas like getting the public to do the same work for free online. After all, if it works for the Huffington Post (which happily publishes supposedly Newsom-penned press releases as news), why wouldn’t it work for San Francisco?

Because San Franciscans aren’t customers — they are, collectively as citizens, the boss. While forwarding a complaint to the proper department was a nice thing to do, checking Twitter for complaints is not the job our elected representatives envisioned for the SFPUC (sort of how the Mayor’s Office of Communications isn’t supposed to be a publicly funded extension of a campaign team, but I digress). Fielding complaints from Twitter, 311, et al. at best keeps the agency responding to symptomatic problems, not larger issues like decaying infrastructure.

Remember when Andrew Lee, scion of local political fixer and convicted fraud Julie Lee, was appointed by then-mayor Willie Brown to the Public Utilities Commission? Andrew had been working for former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, no doubt thanks to the fact that his mother had been helping Shelley by funneling grant money for a community center into Shelley’s campaign coffers.

The much-maligned Chris Daly sat down with the Lees, and asked Andrew about his qualifications. Lee responded that he new nothing about utilities, but was great at “customer service.” Daly proceeded to depart from official protocol and used a day as acting mayor while Brown was off in China to make sure Andrew didn’t get the job. For actually acting in the interest of voters, Daly has been persona non grata to City Hall power brokers since (while Andrew went off to New York to pursue a career in hip hop or something).

Of course, the same day that the SFPUC and Rec and Parks were making one “customer” happy, Mill Valley’s Phil Bronstein noted that The City was wasting water left and right thanks to poorly maintained sprinkler systems. That’s the kind of larger issue that would be much more difficult to present on Twitter, where discussing long-term capital investment in basic infrastructure is more likely to get you blocked by thin-skinned politicians than earnestly addressed by city staffers.

Because such things take time, energy and expense to solve — time, energy and expense apparently being spent by the SFPUC on following status updates and employing spokespeople handy with soundbites and 140-character epigrams.

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