New Haven is taking an innovative approach to increasing residents’ satisfaction with city services.

In April, the first round of “mystery shopper” volunteers will attend an orientation session that will provide them with guidelines for evaluating city services and then reporting on the quality of service they receive.

The service requests will be made primarily through the city’s Web 311 system featured on its web site. The Web 311 program is modeled after many larger cities’ 311 phone systems, which provide a central “port” through which citizens can request services, submit complaints or suggestions, and inquire about matters relating to city government and services.

New Haven’s online 311 system connects to all city departments, explains Emily Byrne, the Mayor’s Policy Analyst. “The mystery shopper program will allow us to test how well the program works,” she says.

Each volunteer will be asked to submit one legitimate service request per month through the system. From the mundane – like reporting a burned out street light to a fallen tree branch/limb or a pothole – to the more serious issues affecting resident health, safety or well-being, the requests must be about real issues so that their resolution can be tracked.

Volunteers will also randomly choose from a variety of prepared questions to ask specific city departments. They will then make three to four of these informational requests via telephone calls throughout the twelve-month period.

These calls will be graded on the basis of the timeliness in which calls are returned, how quickly, clearly, and accurately questions are answered, and the courteousness of the employee. Likewise, volunteers will evaluate the responses they receive to service requests made via the Web 311 system.

The city is asking volunteers to serve for a one-year term so that they cover all seasonally-related requests. For example, Emily Byrne expects many requests pertaining to snow removal services during the winter months, while summer queries will encompass other issues.

In order to preserve the integrity of the “mystery shopper” program, volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement, as well as a contract that stipulates says their participation for the twelve-month period, and indicates their understanding that this is a volunteer, non-paying commitment.

Results of the program will help the city determine where improvements are necessary in terms of providing efficient, quality services to its residents. Reports that pertain to specific employees will be made part of their respective human resources files.

At the end of the first year, the city will report its overall findings to residents.

While mystery shoppers are a fixture in the retail industry, the process is relatively unique to municipal government. Dallas launched its original mystery shopper program in 2004, and based on the experience, introduced a revised version in October 2006. (For more details on Dallas’ program, see link below.)