The City of Edmonton’s Lame 311 “Service”

.: If you live in the City of Edmonton, you cannot, ever, reach any City employee in her or his department.  If you have a question, concern, complaint, or want to praise someone, you have to call the 311 Contact Centre.  (At least one glaring exception, of course, is the Edmonton Police Service.)  Dialing 311 connects you to an operator, who ostensibly will record your concern and forward it to the appropriate department for follow-up.

The escalator at the LRT station that I use twice a day (the station, not the escalator) has been out of commission since last Monday (if not earlier).  I wanted to speak to someone in the Transportation Department to find out 1) why it isn’t working, 2) why there is evidence whatsoever that anyone from that department is working to repair it, and 3) why there is no signage to advise riders when it will be functional again.

Yesterday I called the City of Edmonton’s 311 and registered this concern with an operator.  I also expressed my general dissatisfaction and lack of confidence in the 311 service.  She told me told me that 311 saves the employees in individual City departmental offices from having to spend time talking to the public so that they can do their actual jobs instead.  These employees, of course, are the ones who could most likely answer the questions quickly and efficiently.

I halfheartedly expected a call back today with an explanation.  No call was received.  When I arrived at the LRT station in the morning and in late afternoon, the escalator was still dead.

I have called 311 in the past about other concerns.  Each time I’ve called and asked for follow-up, NO ONE ever calls back.  I often wonder if the calls are “recorded” and then immediately deleted.

It is SO frustrating not to be able to speak to any City employee in any department anymore.  One wonders what the City Manager(s) and Councilors were thinking when they rolled out this so-called “service.”  Were they hoping for more efficiency?  Or perhaps it is designed to frustrate Edmontonians so much that they would abandon the idea of getting anyone at City Hall to ever listen to them anymore.  If so, I give it full marks for having worked to achieve that goal.

How can it be more efficient to call an intermediary, describe the concern or complaint, then have that intermediary (theoretically, anyway) forward said concern to the appropriate department, rather than being able to speak to someone in said department directly?

My call yesterday was about a problem at an LRT station.  No one called me back yesterday or today.  Upon arriving at home at ~17:30 MDT, I called 311 and gave the operator my ticket number.  He checked it, and said it was still an “open file”, meaning it is (theoretically) sitting in someone’s in-box waiting for a response, apparently at their leisure.

What can we expect if a concern raised by a citizen is critical and needs a swift response?

The City of Edmonton’s 311 page tells us that “Creating a 311 service provided the opportunity for citizens to access all City of Edmonton information 24 hours a day, offering a more comprehensive and cost effective service to citizens.”

I can’t speak to its cost-effectiveness.  Perhaps it has saved the City of Edmonton money, but it is incredibly inefficient.  Alain Saffel said it best on Mack Male’s site last September:

Not sure I see the point in a service where I’ve got to explain an issue to a person who likely doesn’t know the solution, only to pass it along to someone else who can actually discuss the issue with a reasonable level of knowledge.

I ran into this as a reporter with some PR people where I had to filter everything through them instead of talking directly to the person who had the answers. It was inefficient and stupid.

And there’s the rub.  Having to deal with an intermediary is such a waste of time and energy.

I am no fan of 311, and wish the City of Edmonton councilors had given it more thought before implementing it.  Just because dozens of other municipalities in North America are using it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do.

UPDATE: This morning (30 August 2010), I received a call from an staff member from LRT Maintenance.  He left me a message, I called him back, and received more details about the issue.  Apparently there was significant vandalism done at the LRT station in question (and others as well – very disheartened to learn this), and that the repair was taking longer than expected.  I was satisfied with his response, and thanked him for getting back to me.  I suggested signage might help, given the lengthy delay in the repair of the escalator, and he advised that he would try to have signage in place by tomorrow.

So this time – this one time – 311 did work for me.  Perhaps there is hope for the service yet.  Time will tell, but on the basis of one positive experience, I’m not convinced it’s the best way for a large city to handle communication with its citizens.

7 Responses to “The City of Edmonton’s Lame 311 “Service””

  1. Rhubarb Moon Says:

    Hi Randy. This is an important issue. I can’t say I’m a very patient person when confronted with change. It usually takes me a while to , especially change that seems to make things more complicated and less efficient.

    I am a swimmer and enjoy the various recreational venues here in the city. As with any recreational venue, schedules and availability changes monthly, weekly sometimes daily. You can access the swim schedule online, but of course it is too time consuming to expect daily time changes to be posted online. It used to be the case that you could call a facility and speak to an onsite worker, finding out about swim time changes, business of the facility and so on. This is no longer possible.

    A few weeks ago I visited one such facility and wore a brand new bathing costume. When I returned home I discovered that the coveted item was no longer in my possession. I knew I had left it in the changeroom, and even knew exactly where it was.

    I called 311 as there is no longer any number for the various facilities. I had called 311 shortly after its implementation to learn about pool hours, and the friendly operator had been able to ascertain the information I sought by calling the facility directly. I hoped that this time I would have the same luck, and get a quick response and quick action to deal with my dilemma. When I finally got through to an operator, I was surprised to discover that the operators were no longer allowed to call the facilities. In order to find out if my bathing suit had been left at the venue, I would need to send an email, for which a response could be expected the next day at the earliest, or physically go to the facility and see for myself.

    I was very surprised by this development. I spoke to a manager at this time and found out this was indeed a new development, and that the operators had been disallowed from calling the facilities. I suggested that they might want to rethink this policy and after chatting with her about it, decided to register a complaint regarding such. I was told I could expect a response by the end of the week. I said I couldn’t believe that there was no physical way to communicate with the pool.

    Over a month later, no one has bothered to contact me or to respond to my complaint. I did go to the pool that night. I got in my car and drove there, instead of being able to take care of this situation by telephone, like I would have done any other night prior to the implementation of 311. I was very relieved to see my bathing suit still hanging where I had left it hours before. As I pulled away from the pool, suit in hand, I shook my head at the absurd, anti-green steps I had to take to solve my problem. Could the city be in such financial straights that they can’t allow telephone calls to the facilities? It was a quiet night and after a few blocks, my mood changed. There is always a silver lining. I calmed down and admired 311 for allowing me a moment of nostalgia, Edmonton circa 1949.

  2. Ashley Says:

    I have to agree with your comments. I actually worked there for a little while. There are several problems with 311. First the departments do not call people back! Ever! They use the operators to hide from citizens. Second most departments do not let 311 operators call them to acquire additional information; operators are essentially banned from calling other departments. Third there is a serious lack of training. Many of the departments didn’t bother helping with training at all! Many departments helped “train” the first few batches of 311 operators and left the rest to be trained in house and a surprising majority just sent over power point presentations to train 311 staff (what a joke). I use the term “train” loosely as an afternoon to learn an entire department really can’t be considered training. The agents rely on “scripts” submitted by the departments and all 311 employees are directed to “follow the scripts” in the absence of any actual training. The scripts are either ridiculously long (20 pages), do not contain adequate information, or simply don’t make any sense (I personally suspect that departments sabotage these scripts). The last major problem is that the departments treat 311 agents like absolute garbage! If you are actually able to talk to someone on the phone they treat you like you are stupid for not knowing information about their department (as if the absence of training and horribly written scripts were enough). I have been hung up on, and yelled at by other city employees. I have heard 311 has been the butt of jokes and complaints in various department staff meetings city wide. In short every city department is pissed off that 311 is now taking their calls and they go above and beyond to ensure that every operator is made aware of this, by being rude and offering as little help as possible. Oh yeah the reason they don’t call people back is because they know that citizens will just have to call and blame 311 for not getting a response. If a citizen does manage to get a hold of a department or decides to eventually go in person they consistently throw 311 under the bus and say “311 never sent us your concern” even though we did. By choosing to not call people back, departments are hoping that citizens will complain enough about 311 that eventually city council will decide to get rid of it.

  3. Harold Says:

    Yep, Ashley is 100% right. 311 is not to blame, they are getting all the information and providing it to other departments. The othe departments are dragging there heals in responding, or doing anything. It looks like 311 is at fault but really they are not…

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I know this thread is 2 years old but I just HAD to comment on your topic. So, firstly, when you have comments enabled on your blog you should think about at least acknowledging the people – even if you disagree. Second, I just spoke to a wonderful woman on the 311 regarding basement renovation paperwork and she answered all my questions in 5 minutes, was extremely helpful, and a joy to speak to. I get your frustration, I have similar ones regarding the city. However, the other people who commented make a serious point. The point is, you don’t know the full story surrounding the 311 line. It’s perfectly OK to rant – but don’t take it out on the people in the front line of fire…perhaps think about making suggestions to the city on how they can improve their service.

  5. Randy Reichardt Says:

    .: Anonymous: First, thanks for your comment. I do wish you had chosen to identify yourself, even with a first name. Your points are well taken, yet you choose to hide behind these comments.

    It is not necessary to acknowledge everyone who comments on my, or any blog. If you scan through this blog, you will see that I have acknowledged other comments many times.

    I stand by what I wrote about 311. It is a lame, impotent service. I have no issues with the 311 operators, they are the ones being hung out to dry by the City’s decision to implement this waste of taxpayers’ funds. Not one time, ever, have I got a straight answer from anyone at 311. It’s always, “well, I need to write this down on my computer, then message the appropriate department for follow-up, hopefully someone will respond to you “soon”, and so on.

    Did you read Ashley’s comment, above? She worked there. She writes about the lame-ass training and how other city departments treat 311 like garbage. It’s no wonder the 311 service sucks so badly.

    The last time I had to contact the City, I circumvented 311 by finding the email address of the Department I needed to contact. My request for action was submitted on a Saturday, and the work I had requested was completed 5 days later.

    I understand this year that Edmonton 311 received an award for top notch service. If this “service” warrants an award and is ostensibly at the top of the 311 services in North America, I shudder to think of how deplorable the others must be.

    Again, thanks for your comment. Next time, please consider leaving a name, even if it isn’t your real one.

  6. Rob Says:

    I cannot understand why there is no ANONYMOUS complaint process in the City of Edmonton. WHY do I have to identify myself to the City of Edmonton when one of my neighbours is breaking bylaws left and right? ESPECIALLY, why do I have to identify myself to the city when city employees “hide” behind the convenient 311 service. This is f?%$#?& ridiculous and someone at Edmonton City Hall MUST wake up to the fact that many municipalities offer an ANONYMOUS complaint process. WHY DOESN’T EDMONTON?!

  7. Veronica Says:

    Hmmmmmmm
    I have MANY – most of the numbers that 311 won’t give you.
    The departments don’t want to talk to you whiny customers about trivial matters. Yes, I get that in your pathetic little lives, snow on the sidewalk, the bus not showing up on time, the LRT escalator being down, your neighbour’s dog barking, the plow schedule, the potholes, the construction that impedes your commute to work, the arena b.s, the parking meter not accepting your money, the mayor won’t take your call & blah blah blah on it goes ha ha ha ha |You people are ridiculous. Get a life and worry about something of importance.

    I have these numbers, you see, to get in touch with the department directly but you are too whiny and don’t deserve them. Ya 311 sucks. What else is new? The employees can barely speak english (yes, I know I used to work there) and they follow a “script” for almost every situation you can come up with. Don’t blame them though. Sure, they get paid (at the top end) $30/hr to listen to your b.s complaints and put your comments through to the department. Oh yea, and the roadways dep’t is THE WORST!!! They will never return your call, so don’t even try. The 311 reps are treated like 5 year olds, management is the worst and morale is incredibly low. It’s a crap job and the only thing keeping people working there are the benefits or they are close to retirement, etc. So basically you can’t win. Even if you escalate the call to the “Support Desk”, all they will do is send an email to the department saying you’ve called in again. Essentially the support desk is there to appease you into thinking something is being done. Let me be clear here……….. Nothing will be done. Mayyyyyyyyyyyyybe you will get a call back eventually and maybe you will be ignored entirely. It’s a gamble really. The way these dept’s see it, is that it’s better to deal with the issue, depending, of course IF your complaint warrants the action. If you are just being a moron, whiny citizen (most of you), then they will get to it when it suits them (never!!!). If you have a legitimate concern, then actions will be taken within 2 weeks or so depending on the situation.

    So I hope that helps (I know it won’t & doesn’t – ha ha ha). And stop calling when your stupid power goes out. That’s EPCOR and not 311 morons!!!! Also don’t call when there’s a huge snow dump. Ya the plows are going to be out to your little crescent ASAP!!!! Because it’s so much more important for you to get your piece of junk car out of your driveway than it is to clear the main thoroughfares. Grab a brain people and stop jamming the phone lines. These reps take abuse from you and that’s not easy when they don’t even understand what you are yelling at them for.

    So just stop calling and know that your little problem doesn’t warrant a phone call and stop being a whiny little bitch. GEt a life and grow up.

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