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City hall staff on 311: So far, a pain in the butt

April 5th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Those familiar with city hall realize that the city is doing soft testing of its new 311 system these days. You know, the new system that everyone says is going to streamline city hall, get potholes fixed faster, help the city understand where the real problems in the system are, open the door to non-English-speaking residents, etc etc. The idea is people no longer have to look up a bunch of numbers. They just dial 311, get put through to the right department, a file number is attached to their complaint, and a tracking system not only makes sure that it gets dealt with but it compiles statistics to show which areas are generating the most citizen calls and complaints.

I’m not being totally sarcastic with my praise for this miraculous system. I’ve expressed some doubts about the value of this $20-million operation in the past and been chided by all kinds of community people and those interested in more democratic government, saying it has been a godsend in other cities. So I’ve been convinced by them that I am wrong (or stupid) and they are right (or smart).

The benefits may all prove true at some point in the future, but my experience so far and the experience of some departments has been less than glorious. On my first encounter with the system, first I had to sit through a couple of lengthy messages, one telling me to phone 911 if I had a real emergency and the second one something about how the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act apply to my call. Then when the human came on the phone, I asked for Dave Rudberg, the city’s head of Olympic preparations. “Dave Rundberg?” she said, sounding extremely puzzled. “I don’t see a Dave Rundberg.” No, that’s RUDBERG — he’s in charge of the city’s Olympic preparations. He makes a lot of money and is one of the head honchos around here. Eventually, I got put through.

But my suffering is as nothing compared to, for example, the mayor’s office, where both non-political and political staff are now turning into a secondary switchboard inside city hall. Because when the 311 operators hears the words, “I want to speak to the mayor …” then that’s where the call gets put through. Doesn’t matter if the words after are “about a pothole” or “about why my taxes are so high” or “about the warehouse down the street that’s running a porn-production operation.”

And I can’t even imagine what’s happening with the calls that will inevitably come to the city from people complaining about, say, the problem with the court system or airplane noise (respectively, provincial and federal jurisdictions). That is one of the issues with making it real easy to call — you turn into the help line for problems that aren’t even yours.

Here’s hoping someone gives those 311 operators some federal and provincial telephone directories. But at least they don’t have to worry about trying to find Dave Rundberg any more. He’s retired. Maybe it was because his phone stopped ringing.

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  • Not running for Mayor

    Here’s a funny story that ties in with yours, years ago I worked for Jimmy Pattison at his old head office at 1066 W Hastings. We’d have people come in daily that wanted to talk to him about their spoiled bananas, grocery bags breaking etc.
    One of the best stories I remembered, Jimmy acutally works 7 days a week, on the weekends he’s sometimes the only one in the office and he will acutally pick up the main line if anyone calls. On a Monday we got to hear about his consversation with a little old lady that felt the caps on her soda purchased at a Save-On were on too tight, Jimmy acutally spent 20minutes on the phone with her.

  • Living in the City

    The 311 system right now has all the features of a poorly-configured automated voice system (think of some of the older iterations of Translink’s automated system) Robotic, inflexible, often misguided.
    The only difference is that unlike an automated system swearing at it or hitting “0” won’t get me through the system any quicker.

  • In NYC, the 311 system revolutionized the way services were delivered in the city, and helped bring real improvements to the things people care most about – the basic city services everyone depends on.

  • T W

    Your opinion on city hall’s 311 service, which has not yet been formally launched, fails to identify anyone other than yourself who’s biased against the system.

    As a Vancouver resident and taxpayer who’s familiar with e-mails never answered and phone calls often not returned by city employees, I welcome the 311 initiative that we expect will open up public access to information from city hall. A streamlined information service is desperately needed in our city of more than 500,000 residents who often wait several days, sometimes weeks, for answers to questions that directly impact our daily lives.

    I understand that the City managers and supervisors started just a couple of months ago to train new staff and bring the project up to the operating level required for public service. I am surprised that a former reporter of your experience has failed to contact or to quote a 311 representative who’s familiar with its current phase of development

  • fbula


    I am not against it. I’m just saying what my personal experience has been and the rumblings I’m getting inside city hall. That’s what blogs are for. I also made a point of mentioning how many people say it’s a great thing and noting that they’re in their early training system. When or if I do a full story on the 311 system, I will contact everyone in the world who needs to be contacted.