Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Neverland that lives behind 311

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City of Winnipeg officials who manage the 311 phone contact centre claim that citizens are satisfied because they are not receiving many complaints. This is brilliant, since the only way people can complain is if they are willing to wait forever on hold with that same 311 system! Many people have simply given up.

311 is a major disaster. We are just lucky we do not have to deal with real major disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes because you cannot get any help from the city for anything that is remotely complicated by using 311.

Winnipeg citizens who need information about property taxes or street repairs or services like garbage collection must now dial 311 instead of looking up a phone number in the civic government listings (blue pages) that would connect them directly with the department they need. For example, the number listed for dead animal pickup (986-2626) now connects the caller with a 311 operator; if you dial 986-6637 for pools, you get a 311 operator, and so on.

The problem is that 311 operators are basically call centre employees who are supposed to be sufficiently trained and knowledgeable to figure out how your call should be "handled." If your need or query is in any way complex, you must spend a lot of time explaining your circumstances to the operator, who then must explain your situation to whatever department or civic staff-person the operator thinks might be the best person to help you. Not only does this requires a written report or memo, which takes a lot of time, but often the wrong person is chosen, and the person who calls you back informs you he or she is "not responsible for that" and tells you to call 311 again.

And, of course, things can get lost in translation, so the person who calls you back has a completely different understanding of what you need (before you both realize that what you need is "not their department"). And you are told to go back and start your way through the 311 system again.

You almost never get the help or information you need from the first call to 311. Most callers to 311 must leave a name and number so they can get back to you.

Sometimes. And, most often, only after a couple of days have passed.

The basic deal breaker is that call-centre employees can never replace people who actually work in a specific department or have worked at a specific job for any length of time. For example, a receptionist who has answered the phones for the city library department for a week or a month is going to know the basics about returns and renewals (or the right person to talk to about such book-borrowing matters). But a call-centre employee is most likely to be completely unfamiliar with the Dewey decimal system, if they even know it pertains to libraries..

That kind of common sense compelled the city to provide direct access to libraries and zoning and permit departments, but not much else. When you try to call a city department directly you are told to call 311.

There is a way to short circuit the system and cut through all these problems but unfortunately, it only caters to the squeaky wheels and really, shouldn't the system simply work with having to "squeak" about it?

For some reason -- I assume not because they have received a large number of complaints -- the city has developed a numbered reference system so that you can keep track of progress on your inquiry. But in my experience, this reference number is only offered when you are exasperated (and this will manage to escape you around the third or fourth call). Get such a number when you make your first call. It will come in handy.

And, of course, there is always the power of protest. You will be amazed how fast the 311 system works if you call your city councillor or Mayor Sam Katz himself.


Don Marks is a freelance journalist who requires information from the City of Winnipeg in his other various occupations outside the media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2009 A10


Updated on Friday, July 10, 2009 at 1:43 PM CDT: Corrected inaccuracy: people who require police non-emergency services need not call 311.

4:04 PM: Correction: The media line at City Hall was established prior to the 311 system.

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