Department of Buildings Complaint-Based Inspections Audit

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed an audit of the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) complaint-based inspection operations. The objectives of the audit were to determine whether DOB meets required deadlines for responding to building complaints, whether the Department effectively prioritizes complaints, and whether the records of building code violations available to the public on the City’s Data Portal and DOB’s Building Violations web page are complete and accurate.

OIG concluded that DOB does not have effective strategies for prioritizing complaint-based inspections, which results in potential health and safety hazards going unaddressed, and that the City’s websites do not provide the public with a property’s complete violation history.

The audit revealed that DOB met its response deadline for only 36.5% of complaints; had a backlog of over 5,000 open complaints dating back to 2013, including a number that described serious threats to life and safety; and summarily closed more than 2,000 complaints without addressing even those describing plainly hazardous situations. Furthermore, DOB set complaint response deadlines that exceed the 21-day deadline prescribed by Municipal Code of Chicago (MCC), thereby undermining City Council’s stated intent to prevent significant delays between the receipt of a complaint and the inspection of a hazardous property. Finally, the City’s Data Portal does not provide a property’s full violation history, and DOB’s Building Violations web page misleadingly fails to indicate when a particular violation has been corrected subsequent to inspection. As a result, DOB supervisors are regularly required to depart from their principal duties and engage in the time-intensive task of researching a property’s violation history in response to a public request.

OIG recommends that DOB immediately identify and address any open, overdue emergency complaints. To improve complaint response going forward, the Department should conduct a staffing analysis for all bureaus to determine how many inspectors and support staff are needed to manage each bureau’s workload in an effective manner and to respond promptly to complaints. DOB management should develop guidance, and provide training to bureau supervisors, on the most efficient methods of identifying and processing complaints to ensure their prompt treatment. The Department should work with 311 to improve the information collected from complainants, as well as the Office of Budget and Management to obtain the technology necessary for all inspectors to enter complaint outcome and inspection information electronically from the field. To reach better decisions about operational performance, including the determination of staffing levels appropriate to address the volume of complaints in each bureau, DOB should set policies standardizing the data entry process, and should work with 311 to obtain more useful performance reports.

Furthermore, DOB should revise its complaint response deadlines to ensure that none exceeds the 21-day deadline prescribed by the MCC. In the alternative, the Department should seek amendments to the MCC, provided that any changes heed the ordinance’s original intent of preventing “lengthy delays” that might allow “further deterioration” of hazardous conditions, “endanger[ing] the health and safety of residents and neighbors.”

Finally, DOB should improve the usefulness of publicly available data by clearly explaining on the Data Portal and Building Violations web pages what information is and is not available on those sites, and should work with the Department of Innovation Technology (DOIT) to provide more meaningful and complete information to the public.

DOB agreed with our audit recommendations and proposed several corrective actions to improve the way it addresses complaints from the public. Specifically, the Department stated that it addressed the open, overdue emergency complaints OIG identified and met with bureau supervisors to “refine protocols” related to how complaints are routed and prioritized. In addition, DOB management explained that it would take into account complaint volume and response time data when reviewing staff levels, and would “refine” reports on complaint data to ensure they meet the Department’s operational needs. Finally, DOB committed to work with 311 to ensure that inspectors are able to close out complaint inspections in “real time” using mobile technology, and to work with DOIT to improve the user experience with publicly available building data. We encourage DOB to approach improvements to its complaint-based inspection operations holistically and programmatically, utilizing robust performance metrics to inform a comprehensive, rather than a piecemeal approach.