Department of Buildings Complaint-Based Inspections Follow-Up Inquiry

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed a follow-up to its April 2018 audit of the Department of Buildings’ (DOB) complaint-based inspection operations. Based on the Department’s responses, OIG concludes that DOB has partially implemented corrective actions related to the audit findings.

The purpose of the 2018 audit was to determine whether DOB met required deadlines for responding to building complaints, whether the Department effectively prioritized complaints, and whether the records of building code violations available to the public on the City’s Data Portal and DOB’s Building Permit and Inspection Records web page were complete and accurate. Our audit found that DOB did not have effective strategies for prioritizing complaint-based inspections, which resulted in potential health and safety hazards going unaddressed for longer than allowed by the Municipal Code of Chicago (MCC), and that the City’s websites did not provide the public with a property’s complete violation history.

Based on the results of the audit, OIG recommended that DOB,

  1. immediately identify and address any open, overdue emergency complaints;
  2. 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;
  3. develop guidance, and provide training to supervisors, on the most efficient methods of identifying and processing complaints to ensure their prompt treatment;
  4. work with 311 to draft and implement questions that will elicit the information needed to identify the most serious complaints;
  5. work with 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;
  6. set policies standardizing the data entry process;
  7. work with 311 to obtain more useful performance reports;
  8. revise its complaint response deadlines to ensure that none exceed the 21-day limit prescribed by the MCC, or seek an amendment granting DOB the power and duty to establish deadlines via departmental rule (provided that such amendment preserves the intent of the ordinance to prevent lengthy delays in complaint responses, and to protect public health and safety);
  9. improve the usefulness of publicly available data by clearly explaining what information is and is not available on the Data Portal and Building Permit and Inspection Records web pages; and
  10. work with the Department of Innovation Technology (DOIT) to provide more meaningful and complete information to the public.

In its response to the audit, DOB described corrective actions it would take.

In June 2019, OIG inquired about the status of the corrective actions taken by DOB. Based on the Department’s follow-up response, OIG concludes that it has partially implemented corrective actions. As part of its 2020 budget request, DOB completed a staffing analysis to determine how many inspectors are needed to effectively manage each bureau’s complaint inspections. However, although DOB closed all open, overdue complaints identified in the audit, 350 of those complaints still appeared open in the City’s 311 system due to data conversion errors related to implementation of a new system in late 2018. This is problematic, because it suggests that the reports DOB developed in response to the audit may be inaccurate. The Department told OIG that it asked DOIT to close the complaints caused by data conversion errors. In addition, as of October 23, 2019, DOB still carried a backlog of 1,855 open, overdue complaints. Finally, DOB has not documented standardized data entry and complaint prioritization procedures.

Regarding OIG’s recommendation related to non-compliance with the MCC requirement to investigate complaints within 21 days, DOB worked with the Department of Law to change the language in the Code. The amendment removed the deadline and added language directing the commissioner or her designee to prioritize complaint investigations “based upon considerations of public health and safety.” DOB has not changed its internal deadlines for complaint response, which range from 3 to 90 days depending on the complaint type.

DOB has partially implemented changes to publicly available data sets. The Department stated it has addressed data issues with its “Building Permit and Inspection Records” page, (formerly known as the “Warehouse”) and made the data headings more accurate. However, DOB has not updated the data description for that site and has not yet addressed “significant problems with the filtering rules and reporting logic” for building violations data available through the Chicago Data Portal.

Once fully implemented, OIG believes the corrective actions reported by DOB may reasonably be expected to resolve the core findings noted in the audit (i.e., open, overdue complaints, internal performance reporting, and publicly available data). We urge the Department to fully implement OIG’s recommendations to complete a staffing analysis of how many inspectors and support staff each bureau needs to manage its workload effectively and respond promptly to complaints, to develop written procedures and guidance for the prioritization of complaints, to work with 311 and DOIT to fix the data errors in the 311 system, and to continue working with DOIT to improve publicly available data.