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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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