City’s 311 lets callers know how long they’ll wait

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A new online tool will help callers to the city’s 311 service better predict how long they’ll spend on hold.

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A new online tool will help callers to the city’s 311 service better predict how long they’ll spend on hold.

After months of soaring wait times to connect with the city information service, a “real-time” tracker shares the average wait that occurred during the previous 30 minutes on the city’s web page.

The “current call times” tab is updated every five minutes, while viewers can also click on “today” and “yesterday” tabs to discover how long folks waited over the past several hours or previous day.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Inside Winnipeg's 311 call centre.

“By having that call data available in real time… maybe this will help (residents) make a decision on when (it is) best to call. If you have something that’s less urgent in priority, you might be better to call later in the evening or earlier in the morning,” said Felicia Wiltshire, the city’s director of customer service and communications.

Wait times mostly ranged from 20 minutes to 35 minutes between 9 a.m. and noon Tuesday. Monday’s data showed little to no wait between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. and peaked at 57 minutes just before 4:30 p.m.

Wiltshire said it’s too soon to tell if people are changing the times they choose to call 311 based on the newly shared information, which the city began posting online last week. She said requests for this type of data have become common.

“Increasingly… not only were people asking more frequently about the wait time at 311 but also just starting to ask about when (it) is the best time to call,” said Wiltshire.

311 was designed to be a convenient first point of contact for Winnipeggers to file complaints or request information about city services.

But the time to reach 311 skyrocketed in 2021, leading many residents to complain it is no longer practical. The longest wait times for calls exceeded two hours.

The average call wait time for the 24/7 service surged to 11 minutes and 42 seconds last year, up from 2:56 in 2019 and 5:27 in 2020, a recent city report showed. The average amount of time spent to handle each call also rose, to 6:14 in 2021 from 5:13 in 2019.

The city has blamed the extensive waits on increasingly complex calls, frequent staff turnover and an increased number of email and social media interactions that 311 agents must also answer.

Wiltshire said unexpected events can also lead to sudden spikes in demand, such as the heavy rainstorm that flooded many city streets on June 24.

“Wait times at 311 just spiked almost instantly when that heavy rain event happened,” she said.

The city received 122 calls due that evening, which were prioritized in a water and sewer emergency queue. Those calls had an average wait time that ranged from between 18 and 32 minutes from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The average wait times for unrelated calls ranged from 39 minutes to 1 hour and 22 minutes during the same period.

The city’s website also shares average talk times per call. However, Wiltshire said the city is not working to reduce the length of individual calls because its top priority is to answer all questions as thoroughly as possible.

Coun. Janice Lukes, who has long pushed for improvements to 311, said the new data is worth sharing but may not help many residents avoid long waits. That’s because the best times to call appear to occur after 10 p.m. and before 7 a.m., she said.

“If people have very flexible schedules, that is positive, (but) that doesn’t mean a lot. There’s still a fundamental disconnect from the front end (of 311) to the back end (of city departments),” said Lukes.

The councillor said city departments can rely on different software and often lack efficient ways to share data, including updates to 311 requests. When those challenges combine with lengthy wait times, some residents will give up trying to get answers through 311 and call their city councillor instead, she said.

“It puts added pressure on anyone that they can phone. I’d say a quarter of my job is 311 work,” said Lukes.

The online dashboard is part of a broader effort to revamp 311, which was released a few months ago. The city expects to post information on “call drivers” next.

An April report noted the city will also review the starting wage for entry-level positions at 311 and flexible (work-from-home) options, with the goal of better retaining staff. The number of full-time 311 positions fell from 105 in 2019, to 80 in 2020, and 75 in 2021.

311 wait times are now posted at https://winnipeg.ca/311/default.asp#contact-311

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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Updated on Tuesday, July 5, 2022 5:35 PM CDT: Adds images.

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