x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hotline that is not so hot

An investigation by The National finds Abu Dhabi Municipality's non-emergency number is hit and miss.

A broken pavement on 15th Street near Airport Rd, which has been reported to the municipality.
A broken pavement on 15th Street near Airport Rd, which has been reported to the municipality.

ABU DHABI // If the pavement outside your house is full of potholes, or the walls are emblazoned with lewd graffiti, the solution should be simple: call the municipality's free hotline on 993 and the problem will be fixed in no more than a month and a half.

The reality, The National has discovered, is somewhat different. While calls may generate plenty of talk, they often result in minimal action. Officials charged with following up complaints blame red tape and the shirking of responsibility for the slow and often non-existent response to callers' concerns. Municipal records show that the volume of hotline calls to Abu Dhabi's complaints centre more than tripled in the last two years.

Officials have described the call centre as a 24-hour "emergency hotline", whereby people can report concerns such as animal welfare violations, illegal bachelor residences, after-hours noise, obscene graffiti and road obstructions. But Abu Dhabi Municipality's customer service department said bureaucracy was bogging down requests for action. Although a municipal official said grievances should take "maximum one month and a half" to put right via the call centre, there were no quick fixes for some complaints.

In June, The National told the municipality that it would test the response time of 993 in the coming weeks. Over 60 days, reporters alerted 993 operators to problems harmful to the city's image. Not one of the concerns - which included lewd graffiti, a hazardous pavement, a hole in the road and a street sign blocking motorists' views of oncoming traffic - was fixed within a month and a half. Reporters were never called back by the municipality, despite assurances that they would be.

One request for action was terminated, according to an operator, because the reporter did not check back within a certain time. However, the reporter had not been instructed to do so. She had to refile her grievance. "Some cases take one hour, some one day, some one week," said Mohammed al Marr, who heads the customer services department. "Work on a damaged road needs to be prepared with consultants, contractors, and things that might impact tenders. So it is in the hands of others."

With the capital's rapidly increasing population, the seven hotline operators were answering more calls than ever, he said. In 2006, the first year that the 993 call centre began keeping statistics, it recorded 1,299 complaints. That leapt to 4,490 in 2007, then to 6,110 last year. In the first seven months of this year, it took 2,658 calls. Statistics were not available for the number of unresolved reports under processing. "If there is no change, it means the case is still open," Mr al Marr said.

Despite the call centre taking around 13 calls a day, few people appear to be aware of the service. A straw poll conducted last week at Al Wahda Mall found that only four out of 60 people had heard of 993. Mohammed al Jazzar, a 35-year-old Egyptian, was unaware of the hotline's existence. He reported a collapsed pavement near his furniture shop to the municipality two years ago, but nothing was done. He has seen pedestrians stumble there but, fortunately, no one has been injured.

"This is dangerous," he said, gesturing towards the crater at the corner of Mohamed bin Khalifa Street and Airport Road. "If you are walking at night, you could fall down unless you are careful. I think it's getting deeper." Mr al Jazzar estimated that fixing the hole would take only hours. The National called 993 about the hole on June 10, then reported it three more times over several weeks. A reporter called again on Saturday but could not find an attendant who spoke English. The hole has yet to be repaired.

Hotline operators recently handled reports of problems at Al Maqta Bridge. "A guy said there were some defects on the joints of the bridge, so he kept calling us because he thought such kind of work would be done in hours," Mr al Marr said. "Such work goes around this circle of procedures - consultants, contractors, tenders - and this requires a lot of money and cannot just be approved within one day or four days."

When Abu Dhabi Municipality launched its first anti-graffiti campaign in May, it urged residents to telephone 993 if they spotted areas that needed to be whitewashed. Osama Samara, 19, lives in one building tagged with lewd graffiti. The Palestinian student said the unsightly scrawls in his neighbourhood in Al Mussala harmed the capital's image and should be repainted as soon as possible, but "nobody wants the responsibility" for the job.

"The one who's responsible for cleaning this is the building manager or the watchman, but, if they don't do anything, they have to call the baladia [municipality]." He feared that different parties would merely transfer responsibility from one to another until the problem was forgotten. "Maybe they will say this building manager has the responsibility to clean. Then nobody will clean this," said Mr Samara.

But the hotline does have its successes. During excavation work at Salam Street, authorities made sure it was available to nearby residents and businesses who were suffering due to the construction. Vera Nur, 18, said her friend, Tania Gilmore, 19, from Britain, had a positive experience contacting the municipality after window cleaners at a neighbouring building caused soapy water to drip on to her car below.

"Her car was messed up, it was covered in soap and you couldn't even see out the windows," said Ms Nur, from Ukraine. "We saw the commercials and the billboards for 993, so we called and some people came two days later and put up a warning, saying, 'Be careful of parking here because they're washing the windows.' They were very friendly." Mr al Marr recalled: "Some time ago, a lady told us there were some Quranic verses written on a board in a shop that was on the ground near the feet of the shoppers.

"We removed the board and put it on a nearby wall." The most common calls to 993 are requests to clear fallen branches, sand or oil slicks on motorways, he said. Residents have also complained about ruptured water mains. At the moment, 993 attendants are required only to speak Arabic. Some spoke limited English, said Mr al Marr, and the municipality might look into hiring people with other language skills.

The system was being upgraded this summer to have an automated voice messaging system, he added. Callers will be able to either speak directly to operators or record messages. They will also be able to report complaints by e-mail or text message. mkwong@thenational.ae