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The City of Edmonton’s Lame 311 “Service”

Posted in 311, City of Edmonton, Edmonton on August 27th 2010 by Randy Reichardt

.: 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.