City’s 311 wait times remain high, but heading in ‘positive direction’
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WAIT times for the city’s 311 service remained stubbornly long last year, though hope for quicker service may be on the horizon.
In 2022, the average wait for callers to report complaints or seek information through the 24-7 city service was 11 minutes and 22 seconds, just shy of the 11:42 average the previous year. That compares to much lower waits of 5:27 in 2020 and 2:56 in 2019.
Coun. Janice Lukes, who has called for customer service improvements for years, said the issue warrants immediate attention.
“311 is essentially the frontline. It’s the first point of contact that the public has with the city and, from a customer service perspective, it’s critically important because… the majority of work that we do is delivering services,” said Lukes.
She said some residents in her ward now opt to directly reach out to their city councillor instead of even using the service.
In recent months, Winnipeggers have complained that some 311 calls have lasted more than an hour at the busiest times.
The city has blamed complex questions, staff shortages and high demand for fuelling the long waits, though Lukes said she’s optimistic an expected budget boost could spark lasting improvements.
The city’s preliminary budget proposes an additional $1.1 million for 311 salaries and benefits this year, which would increase from $4.7 million to $5.7 million. Another $100,000 would be added to the service’s capital budget.
During the election campaign, Mayor Scott Gillingham promised to increase the 311 budget annually until wait times drop to a quarterly average of less than three minutes.
Giving more working hours to existing staff would be one of the first steps to reduce wait times, if the plan is approved, said Felicia Wiltshire, the city’s director of customer services and communications.
“We’re really working hard to make sure that we’ve got (that now). Providing that the budget is approved, it definitely gives us a lot more flexibility to offer more hours and that lets us ensure that we’ve got more staff to answer the phones during peak times,” said Wiltshire.
The city will also try to ensure the overall number of full-time 311 positions reaches 74, as the 2023 budget proposes. While that staffing level target was also in place last year, just 55.5 positions were actually filled at the end of 2022 and the rest were vacant.
By comparison, there were 105 full-time positions at 311 back in 2019.
Wiltshire said the maximum number of full-time employees is set by council but the city should soon be much closer to meeting it. In April, 24 more people are slated to begin a 311 training class (some of whom will take part-time positions) to help bridge the gap.
“That will actually bring us pretty close to our full FTE (full-time employees) complement… That turnover rate is something we are working really diligently to get ahead of so that we are not continually playing catchup on it,” she said.
Wiltshire noted the city also offers online forms to request services, such as pothole repair and snow removal, as an alternative way to report issues. These options are listed just below the banner on the home page of the city’s website under a tab labelled “I want to” that connects to a “report” option.
The 2023 budget includes a target to reduce the average 311 wait to three minutes this year.
During the first two months of 2023, wait times actually beat that goal, with an average wait of 2:22 in January and 2:14 in February. However, Wiltshire cautioned it’s too early to declare the problem solved.
“We’d have to see more data through the year to see if these trends continue but it is definitely heading in a positive direction,” wrote Wiltshire, in an email.
She noted weather events and snow-clearing concerns helped trigger much higher wait times for the first two months of 2022 and such “unforeseen events” can quickly raise demand and wait times.
Council will cast the final vote on the potential 311 funding boost, as well as the entire 2023 budget, on Wednesday.
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.