How to Complain to the Government

OPD 08/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

I once had a run-in with a shopkeeper in New York City so I wrote down his license number and began calling the consumer affairs hotline.

The line was busy.

I put the number on speed-dial.

The number was busy for months.

Since their office was only a few blocks away from mine, I decided to pop by. Four employees sat in a room with all the phones off the hook.

I decided to complain about them to their boss. Using a penname, I wrote the following letter:

August 14, 1989

Ed Koch, Mayor

Mayor’s Palace

City Hall, New York, 10007

Dear Ed,

Recently I have begun considering establishing a branch of my business within the New York City limits. I am writing to you to get your assurances that if re-elected, you will continue to provide the same positive environment for business growth that has persisted for the last few years.

A business like ours is sensitive to consumer perceptions. Frankly, our main concern about past expansions in your direction has been your reputation for tough consumer protection laws and a complaint enforcement system rigged in the consumer’s favor.

However, on the suggestion of a friend, four months ago I began calling your consumer complaint number (212-577-0111) three to five times a day. I got busy signals every time I called except for twice when the phone was picked up and then disconnected immediately.

During a business trip, I actually stopped by to observe the operation. I was told that there were 10 lines, but the room I was shown only had four people in it. One was on a telephone and the other three were reading magazines, filing nails, and chatting. I called the hot line number from a nearby desk and got a busy signal!

Excellent! This is the kind of environment in which I can thrive. I see the wisdom of your plan. Provide tough laws since this keeps the public off the law-makers’ backs. Establish a hot-line to appease the cranks and complainers. And then don’t answer the phone.

I tried calling your office to congratulate you and ask my question directly, but a secretary told me there was no one who could answer my call. (Of course! I should have thought of that myself!)

I anxiously await your assurances. We are ready to begin our business expansion immediately.

(signed)

P. S. I enclose $2.00 to help pay the return postage and to help with your campaign. If all is okay, there’s more where that came from.

Somehow, just by sending this letter to the mayor, I began to feel much better.

When complaining, your goal is to make yourself feel better, not to make the other person feel worse. Humor helps.

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How to Respond to a Citizen

OPD 08/01/2006

brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

After sending the mayor the letter, I felt so much better. The consumer affairs hotline still didn’t pick up their phone but that no longer mattered. I had so much fun thinking up the letter and I was proud of myself.

A few months after I wrote the letter, Ed Koch lost his re-election bid. I hadn’t voted for him. I hadn’t voted for his opponent either. I went into the voting booth, pulled the curtain, and did nothing. I took the time to vote my abstention.

Unexpectedly, at the end of December I received a most lovely belated Christmas present in the form of a letter that I will cherish forever.

City of New York

Office of the Mayor

December 28, 1989

Your letter of August 18 was misplaced and only recently made its way to my desk. I was very troubled by what you had to say and apologize for the delay in responding to you.

The consumer hotline was not established as a public gesture with the intention that, in reality, it would not serve the public or investigate its complaints. Though my administration is about to end, I have asked Consumer Affairs Commissioner Angelo Aponte to look into the charges that you raise. I have asked him to take immediate action, where necessary, to make sure that the hotline is fully staffed and responds expeditiously to all complaints. Moreover, I have asked him to make sure that the next administration is aware of any problems with the hotline.

Further, I am returning the two dollars that you sent to me. I am disappointed by your insinuation that personal financial gain would be a motivation for helping you.

If you are sincere in your interest to establish a branch of your business in New York City, our Office of Economic Development (212-NY-MAGIC) and the Office for Business Development (212-513-6400) may be able to assist you, and I encourage you to contact them.

My administration has sought to create a climate in the City where businesses can flourish and at the same time one where the interests of the City’s consumers and residents will be safeguarded. Arbitrating these interests is no simple or enviable task — but I, and members of my staff, have done that on every day of our watch — and in as just and far-sighted a manner as possible.

All the best.

Sincerely,

Edward I. Koch

M A Y O R

Wow!

As soon as I received the letter, I called the hotline. They picked up on the first ring. I couldn’t remember what had been my complaint the prior summer so I said, “Just checking,” and hung up. From then on the line was answered immediately every time I called.

When responding to a complaint, think WWED.[1]

[1] “What Would Ed Do”. Ed Koch published a collection of his letters in a book called All the Best: Letters from a Feisty Mayor. The man could write.

How I Learned to Wiggle My Ears

OPD 07/01/2006

© 2006 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.net www.BrookeAllen.net
Originally published in International Family Magazine

You might be amazed to know that you have muscles that you have not yet wired up to your brain.

When we mowed the lawn by hand, it was a simple matter to steer around the many large rocks in our fields. Once we automated the process, we needed to remove them.

We piled the stones behind the barn while we thought of a use for them.

“Ah hah,” my dad lit up one day, “We can paint them white and use them to line the driveway.”

He gave me a can of paint, a brush, and the mission.

I began by painting one stone behind the barn. Then I carried it to the edge of the driveway. I repeated this a few times. It was a cumbersome process as the stones were quite heavy. It was annoying since the paintbrush kept drying between each use. And it was messy. Since I wanted to get done that day, I didn’t wait for the paint to dry before moving the stone. I transferred a good deal of paint from the stones to my hands and clothes.

After observing my efforts, my dad took the can of paint from behind the barn and placed it by the driveway.

It took me quite a while to find that can. How annoying. Who asked him to do that? Sometimes my dad would play cruel tricks.

After bringing the can back to the barn. I repeated the process a few more times. Then my dad, for no apparent reason, took a wheelbarrow out of the barn and parked it squarely on the path from the stones to the driveway.

This was even more annoying since I was inconvenienced as I moved each stone. Taking a detour took nearly twice as long.

Finally he moved the wheelbarrow and placed it, inverted, over my pile of stones. Now I was infuriated. I angrily grabbed the wheelbarrow by both handles and flung it a few yards out of the way. What was he trying to do to me?

It was back breaking work and I was exhausted by the time I was finished.

That evening, after dinner, I overheard my dad talking about me to a visiting guest. His comment disturbed me greatly.

That night I had trouble sleeping. I was mulling over his words, searching for hidden meaning. Eventually I found the muscles that allow me to wiggle my ears. Feeling satisfied, I was able to doze off.

I had overheard the words my dad had used to tell his friend the message he had been trying to tell his son.

Learn to use the muscle between your ears.