An Effective Appeals Process
What a difference a year makes. It was great to see everyone at the PIE show last month in Dallas. While I do love remote working, there is something special about in-person interactions. If you weren’t able to make it to the show, you missed a good one. Our move back to normalcy has also brought more parkers and, for enforcement locations, more parking citations, along with in-person trade shows. A larger number of appeals typically follow an increase in citations. Our question this month addresses dealing with an avalanche of appeals.
With the increasing number of parking tickets being issued, we have an ever-growing number of submitted appeals. Do you have any recommendations on creating an effective appeals program?
Overwhelmed in Oklahoma
Thanks for the question, Overwhelmed. (We all feel that way sometimes!) Appeals are an interesting feature of parking management. Depending on your operation, they fall somewhere on the spectrum from “just a way to delay payment” to “a vital part of our parking system.” I have found in many situations, the organization’s goals on revenue generation drive a person’s viewpoint on appeals. These goals tend to vary based on the type of parking location you’re managing.
While there are always exceptions, there seem to be three main camps. They include: Regulation (Municipalities/Airports) which have clear rules they have to follow, which many times are regulated by court systems; Education (Higher Education/Corporate Campus) which have a broader goal of helping their parkers do the right thing; and Revenue (Private Locations) which are primarily focused on generating revenue. An article could be written addressing specific approaches for each of these types, but we will keep it high level this month. These concepts should apply to and be able to help in most situations.
The first area to review is to ensure parking tickets (notices, citations, violations, etc., pick your word of choice) are correct when they are issued. It is much easier to review and dismiss an appeal for a ticket issued correctly. This approach starts with correctly trained enforcement staff.
A good training program, accessible documentation, regular performance feedback, and employee retention are essential (and easier said than done.) One tool that makes it easier is enforcement software that removes as much of the burden (and potential for mistakes) as possible from the officers. This enforcement solution should include fully integrated verification for all parking permission methods (meter, mobile payment, permit, reservation, validation) a parker might obtain.
Officers should not need to check multiple systems to find out if a vehicle has permission to park. This situation creates opportunities for oversights and mistakes. The enforcement system should also automate the application of the parking rules. This type of system allows officers not to have to memorize all of the rules and then apply them correctly in a myriad of different situations.
This concern is especially applicable to municipalities. Cities tend to have the highest levels of complexity around parking enforcement rules. Computers are designed to track and apply rules and logic; most humans have a limit that is many times lower than the number of regulations they are expected to enforce. Your enforcement system should also support a digital method for officers in the field to request a void of a ticket they issued. This feature is not voiding the ticket. I would not recommend that, but a method to request the void, enter a reason, then allow someone else to review and approve the citation void.
This solution enables officers to quickly fix mistakes in the field without opening up the potential fraud opportunity of allowing officers to void citations in the field. Finally, if you are still writing paper tickets, please stop. These days, an electronic enforcement system is not that expensive, there are plenty of options, and many can be run from your smartphone. Paper is excellent for many things; handwritten parking tickets is not one.
Once you address the writing of quality tickets, the next area to review is finding ways to help parkers pay instead of creating an appeal. One way to do this is to have the first stage of the online appeals process prominently display citation information collected during the citation issuance process. This information should include; photos of the vehicle (there should be more than one), GPS location (maps are great), prior citations, permissions checked before issuance (mobile payment, permits, etc.), and public officer notes.
The idea here is to impress upon the parker: we did our job correctly; you will not win this appeal. It can also be helpful to share key historical data about their appeal (if you have it), for example: “only 12 percent of all citations of this type are dismissed on appeal.” Another approach is to create incentives for quick payment. These incentives can include items such as a payment discount if a citation is paid quickly without appeal, first ticket dismissal, a citation appeal fee, requiring citation payment before the appeal, requiring appeals to be processed in person, and finally, using the court system (which can be a double-edged sword).
Not surprisingly, many people use citation appeals as a delay tactic. As such, one key feature of your appeal process should be its speed. It will not be worth the effort to appeal for many people if it doesn’t buy them any time. A few things can help reduce your appeal processing time. The first are dedicated appeal resources. Parking organizations are busy places, and many times tasks such as appeals tend to be the last thing done on a busy day. Having a dedicated resource, even part-time, helps ensure appeals are processed quickly.
A few companies offer outsourced appeal reviews which can be another available option to help lessen the load on your team. In addition to people, a technology solution can be used to streamline the process. If you haven’t moved to fully online appeals, this would be my first step. While you might need to help a few people with technology, the impact of moving away from paper forms cannot be overstated.
Many of these systems will allow you to rule on the appeal and send out responses all within the system. Avoiding having to print appeals not only helps improve the process but avoids unnecessary paper usage. Once all of your appeals are digital, reorder the processing queue to address appeals not just in the order they were submitted, but instead to prioritize the speed of processing.
These priorities could include the number of prior appeals, appeal dismissal record, first-time appeals, length of appeal reason, etc. Address the appeals which are more likely to be quickly processed first and prioritize appeals from parkers trying to use the system as a delay tactic. These reports might not be available out of the box from your vendor, but should be able to be created.
If you pause citation fee escalations during the appeal process, ensure your system can support restarting the escalation process from when the citation was issued (or a manual date) instead of only when the appeal process is complete.
Finally, as with all things in parking, if you oversee an operation, make sure appeals are on the list of items you review, audit, and look to improve. I am sure your staff would never do anything unethical, so it should be easy to check. I hope this was helpful, and you can decrease the impact of the appeals.