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LIFE

How 1823 app has made complaining to Hong Kong government easier

A telephone hotline has evolved into a digital channel for Hongkongers’ complaints big and small. You leave a message about a problem, officials deal with it and message you back. Of course, you can still phone or mail in a complaint, fax it, email it or use social media

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 12:27pm

Whenever long-time resident Richard Feldman saw garbage that hadn’t been picked up for a while, or spot cracks in the public pavement that should be repaired, he would get on his phone and call 1823, a hotline for residents to get in touch with the Hong Kong authorities.

Soon, he could save himself that phone call. The government service has recently gone digital – users can contact officials on pressing issues ranging from fallen trees and problematic potholes, to taxis that refuse fare, all through the 1823 app on their smartphone.

“I love it. It’s so convenient,” says Feldman. “I leave them a message about where the problem is, and within a few days they complete the job and even send me a message to tell me it’s done,” he says.

Simon Lam Kwok-wai is the principal consultant of the efficiency unit that runs the 1823 service that received some 4.2 million requests or inquiries for 2015.

He says this number is comparable to or slightly fewer than Chicago and San Francisco, whereas New York receives on average over 20 million calls a year.

1823 was launched in 2001 as a pilot to integrate various government department hotlines together so that residents would only have one number to call. The service triages the calls and messages, and then passes them onto the relevant departments.

“We wanted to reduce the hurdles in getting in touch with the government and help people get access to government information,” Lam explains, because before 1823, 40 per cent of calls were misdirected, frustrating residents.

“Previously it was the citizen contacting individual departments, but now it’s a single contact point between the citizen and the government.”

Other than using the app, the public can also email, fax, mail, Facebook and – for the few still using the failed social network – Google+ to contact the 1823 team.

While the phone is still the most popular way people get in touch with 1823 because they get a live person on the other line, the mobile app is fast becoming popular, with a 100 per cent increase in usage in the last three years.

Introduced in 2011, the mobile app averaged about 500 submissions per month its first year; today some 84,000 users have downloaded the app and 1823 receives about 5,300 submissions a month in this format.

With the app, people can type a complaint, include a picture and tag a GPS location to it. If the message is too lengthy to type, users can record a voice message.

We set up a hotline in a few days and we received a lot of orders [for milk powder] from parents. It was quite an experience. For our agents, they could actually see that their work helped the parents
Simon Lam

Lam says GPS is particularly helpful in rural areas where there aren’t many landmarks nearby to accurately locate the problem, usually fallen trees or unauthorised construction works. Illegal parking incidents can also be easy to record with pictures or videos from mobile phones.

Complaints and inquiries can be seasonal too, with incidents reported of water dripping from air conditioners and blocked drains during the summer, and dead bird sightings in the winter.

When tax season comes around, some residents call 1823 to double check their taxes were calculated correctly, or about the rating evaluation for government rates, as there were no concessions from this past October.

Meanwhile, perennial enquiries to 1823 include what kind of compensation they are entitled to if they are fired, the number of statutory holidays, driver’s licenses, and the status of their applications for public housing.

“We help 22 departments answer inquiries,” explains Lam, one of more than 400 staff working for 1823. “The staff is divided into groups that help certain departments. From there they take down the case details and send it to the relevant department, and later follow up.

“If nothing has been done, 1823 will try to find if there is another department that actually deals with the case. In some cases some departments allow access to their databases, like the rating evaluation department.”

When the lead-in-water incident broke last June, 1823 received an unusually large number of inquiries wondering which department they should contact, and it was decided it was best if the health and housing departments dealt with the calls directly to avoid disseminating the wrong information.

Another unprecedented request was to help families source milk powder when there was a shortage in February 2013.

“We set up a hotline in a few days and we received a lot of orders from parents. It was quite an experience. For our agents, they could actually see that their work helped the parents,” Lam recalls.

Not only does 1823 receive inquiries and complaints, but also analyses the data on various issues and helps the participating government departments improve on their services.

Lam says the number of complaints has gone down in the last few years, due to greater cooperation with these departments.

In addition, he explains 1823 uses text mining technology and GPS to locate where complaints are concentrated.

“For example, we get 1,000 to 2,000 complaints about on-road conditions, particularly pot holes that are mostly in the Kowloon area. We think there is one guy, who we’ve nicknamed ‘the angel of the road’ who is probably a taxi driver because he is always reporting these problems to us.”

Lam says they don’t know who the complainants are – they can make up names when they call or log in – though some have been identified as schools or organisations. He says the person’s or group’s real identity is not important to the service.

Nevertheless it is interesting to observe most calls to 1823 are during two periods during the day – either between 10am and noon, or after 2pm, which indicates many are office workers, as the number of calls drop after office hours.

1823 is under the Efficiency Unit that is managed directly by the Chief Secretary. The unit was established in the 1990s as a think tank for public sector reform and in 2000 merged with the administration’s management service agency and expanded the role of the unit to help bureaus improve their services.

Looking forward, Lam believes the number of calls or messages from residents will only increase as there is increased demand from the public. The main issues these days are environmental hygiene, transport, labour, ratings and valuation, trees and public housing.

While he jokes 1823 is the busiest contact centreafter the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Lam enjoys the job. “It keeps me busy,” he says with a smile.