Madison Dept. of Civil Rights Computerizes the Portal to its Complaint Process: Civil Rights Meets the 21st Century
Byron Bishop, DCR’s Equal Opportunities Division Manager, spearheaded the effort to computerize and and make it’s complaint process more accessible and efficient.
By Jonathan Gramling
It is one thing to have constitutionally guaranteed rights in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. It’s another thing to be able to seek redress when those rights are denied. For example, try being a single parent of three working a couple of jobs to keep your head above water. And then you are denied an opportunity for advancement on your job, you believe, because of your gender and race. But you have to take time off of work, make arrangements for the kids, get on a bus, go down to city hall to file a paper complaint with the Dept. of Civil Rights and then wait forever, or so it seems, for “the system” to give you redress. For many, it’s not worth the bother.
As a part of the Government Without Walls program where government leaders and administrators spend time in the neighborhoods, Byron Bishop, the manager of the Equal Opportunities Division for Madison DCR, heard from the residents themselves about the service they were receiving from his division and the city overall. There were too many barriers to file a discrimination complaint. Bishop and his team decided to do something about it. They created an online complaint process.
“For the first time ever, going out to the community and hearing from the community, the community said, ‘You need your complaint form accessible online,’” Bishop recalled. “’If it is accessible online, it needs to be in
multiple languages.’ I’m happy to say that our complaint form actually is in six different languages. That is really cool to me because that means from a computer, laptop, tablet or cell phone, someone can still file a complaint form, which takes a matter of minutes, gets the information to us immediately and we can start looking at if the complaint qualifies for us to process. The languages are English, Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan and Hmong. The languages are based on the languages that are primarily used within our region. French is used by Africans from Francophone countries.”
Something that used to take a half day to do can now be done anytime a complainant is able.
“To fill out the complaint form itself online probably takes 10 minutes now,” Bishop said. “And here’s the thing. If a person needs help filling out the complaint form or they don’t understand something or needs something explained to them, we have 26 community partners all throughout the city of Madison, north, south, east and west sides of the community, depending on where someone lives, they can go reach out to one of our community partners, sit down with one of those organizations and get direct help from them filling out the complaint form and getting it to us. We have a new program that we started back in 2017 called a Certified Community Partners Program, which goes out to folks who we recognize are already doing great work in our community, already working with trusted individuals in the community and because they have the trust and are doing good work, we wanted to find ways we could partner with them to share with them, ‘Hey if you are sitting working with a client and you hear that they have been discriminated against in housing or employment or whatever it might be, you can say, ‘Let’s complete a complaint form right now because I know how to do this and I can help you with it.’ The organizations include Centro Hispano, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the YWCA, Tenant Resource Center, Northeast Side Coalition, WI Department of Workforce Development, Just Dane, United Way, Forward Service, 4-Cs of Dane County, Dane County Job Center, Vera Court Neighborhood Center, Community Justice, Inc, Community Immigration Law Center, and the Madison Labor Temple.”
The completed form can only be submitted electronically when all fields have been completed. Then all the complainant has to do is hit “Submit” and the form is sent directly to DCR intake workers.
“They will review it,” Bishop said. “And when they hit submit, they get a reply email that says, ‘We received your complaint. We have your information. Here is a copy of what you submitted.’ And their case number will be on the email. And so if they want to call back and say, ‘I’m calling to check on my complaint, I want to know where it is in the process,’ they can now give us a case number we can look up right away. Typically it takes from 90-120 days to investigate some alleged discrimination. But before it even goes to investigation, the process is it goes through an assigned mediation first. If we can successfully mediate the case, then the case is closed. At that mediation, we don’t discuss the merits of the case. We just talk about, ‘Can we find a way to settle this before it goes to an investigative process?’ But if it can’t be settled at mediation, then it comes to me to assign an investigator. One of three investigators will be assigned the case. All three investigators can handle any kind of case that comes through the door for any one of our categories: housing, employment and public accommodation. I will assign the case to them. At the end of 90-120 days, they will issue what is called an Initial Determination.”
With an initial determination is made, the stakes rise because the determinations benefit one side or the other.
“They will say that it is probable or not probable that discrimination occurred,” Bishop said. “Or it could be a combination of both depending on what was being alleged. And then, if there is no probable cause for discrimination, then there is an appeal process. And if no one appeals, the case is closed. Let’s say that part or all of the case that was submitted did have some areas that we felt there was probable cause for discrimination. Then it gets assigned back to me for conciliation, which is a fancy word for mediation except the respondent at that time has a little bit more skin in the game because it looks like they might get their hands slapped. It’s to their advantage to come and try to settle the case because if I can’t settle the case at the conciliation stage, then I’m the one who certifies it to the judge who works for me and it goes to a pre-hearing conference and it gets scheduled for a hearing.”
Bishop is very proud of the new system that they are bringing online.
“There were a ton of cases in the bottleneck,” Bishop said. “In government, sometimes we can be a little bougie about ourselves when we kind of tell people, ‘Well if you want to file a complaint, you have to come to our office, fill out our form, fill it out in the format that we want you to do it and do it in our timeframe that we are available. That’s not good customer service in my opinion. That’s not good government in my opinion.”
Now when seeking redress for violation of one’s civil rights, what will determine the outcome will be the merits of the case and not surviving a gauntlet of red tape and surmounting barriers to even get your case heard.
That’s what happens when government comes out of its “tower” on King Blvd. and finds out what people need. It results in better service and happy constituents. The quality of life for some in Madison just went higher.