The 311 service is meant to be a first point of contact for residents to connect with city services but, in recent months, it has been a first point of frustration. Wait times have soared to a level that in any customer-oriented industry would be evidence of a dysfunctional operation in dire need of a management shakeup.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The 311 service began in Winnipeg in 2009 after the recommendation of a red-tape commission formed by former mayor Sam Katz, who promised, "This will be one wonderful thing for our city. It will be fantastic."
The single-desk system consolidated 22 existing call centres with the optimistic goal of making it simple for residents to file a report or request information about city services. And 311 often did — back when the calls were answered in a reasonable length of time.
The average 311 wait time in 2019 was 2:56; through 2020, it grew to 5:27, and increased to 11:18 in 2021.
Such appallingly long waits can cause problems. Take, for example, a call from a citizen who, motivated by a commendably high level of care about her fellow Winnipeggers, decides to report a tree branch that is hanging dangerously low over a sidewalk, or perhaps report a pothole so large that it’s a hazard to the safe operation of vehicles.
This citizen’s call to 311 is immediately answered by a cheerful recorded voice that offers a menu of seven options, all of which seem to lead to the dead ends of stay-on-the-line encouragements that park the call while serenading the captive citizen with light jazz music and a recorded repetition of city services.
The caller’s initial diligence will likely diminish in direct proportion to the wait time — they hit outrageous levels of 21:45 minutes in June and 19:32 in August— and it’s both likely and unfortunate that the citizen will hang up before being granted a connection with an actual person who could accept the report of the dangerous tree branch or pot hole.
When 311 acts as a barrier preventing citizens from accessing city services — the opposite of its original purpose — it’s reasonable to ask: what went wrong?
A primary reason why the 311 system has recently soured, rather than improved, communication between the city and its citizens is understaffing. A spokesman said the number of full-time 311 positions fell to 75 in 2021, from 80 in 2020 and 105 in 2019. The operation has also struggled with challenges related to the pandemic, with employees staying home after being required to isolate, or perhaps because they needed to care for children who were stuck at home when schools closed.
The city’s executive policy committee will receive a motion by Coun. Shawn Nason that calls for civic staff to find options to improve wait times and resolution times, including a review of how other cities handle similar services. Options might include a call-back feature, in which callers leave a message rather than wait on hold, allowing 311 staff to return the call at a time when the call volume is lower.
EPC should take the matter seriously. With 311 devised as the single entry point for civic issues, the front-line staffers who — eventually — answer the phones are the voice of city services. They can be scapegoats as citizens are left stewing on hold. Or they can be valuable ambassadors if given the resources to do their jobs properly, starting with answering calls with a promptness that makes citizens feel their concerns are important.