Why 311 would have helped during Vancouver's Snowmageddon

Post by Daniel Fontaine in ,


311-buttonsHere's a test. What number do you call at Vancouver City Hall if you want to report that a business owner has neglected to clear the snow from the front of his/her business? How about if a tree snapped off due to heavy snow and landed in your back lane? Who do you dial if a street should be closed off due to hazardous ice conditions?

Odds are that you don't have the number at your fingertips. That's because there are currently over 550 numbers you need to memorize if you need to contact someone at the City of Vancouver for a non-emergency. If you live in Calgary, you only have to remember one number...311.

If there was ever an event to help people in Vancouver better understand the importance of implementing a new 311 service, Snowmageddon is it.

If you live in Calgary or New York, you are already familiar with the benefits of a 311 service, because it's been in operation in your cities for years. Vancouver is about to 'soft launch' their 311 service later this year, and it can't start soon enough.

Introducing 311 to Vancouver was the brainchild of former City Manager Judy Rogers. In 2006 it received political support and funding from six NPA members of Council. Both Vision and COPE opposed funding for 311.

For those of you not familiar with the 311 system, it has helped to revolutionize the delivery services in the cities that have implemented it. That's because 311 operates 24/7 and offers services in over 50 languages. It helps to deal with all the non-emergency calls 911 is not equipped to deal with.

For a new immigrant with limited English language skills, 311 provides you with a new window into Vancouver City Hall that for too long has shut you out.

311 allows you to apply for permits, report non-urgent issues to city hall and inquire about a range of programs and services from the comfort of your home or business. Gone are the days when you need to rush across town to City Hall before 5 pm, only to find the doors closing in your face. That's because with 311, City Hall stays open after regular business hours.

When you consider that for nine days the City of Vancouver didn't even issue a single bulletin to the citizens of Vancouver regarding service impacts from extreme snow and ice, you can see how this will help bridge an obvious communications gap. No longer will you have stare at a blank screen from the City's website awaiting an update on service interruption updates. Just call 311 - they can help.

In 2006, I visited the 311 service centre in New York City. I was taken on a tour of the facility and had the opportunity to speak with both front-line staff and management. I was blown away by what I saw and heard.

They recounted countless stories where the citizens of New York were helped through their 311 program. But the real testimonials came from the average New Yorkers I spoke to on the street. I did a random focus group of about a dozen folks on the streets of NYC [yes, policy wonks like me actually do this kind of stuff...and I didn't even get arrested]. They all spoke very highly of it with a few shocked that Vancouver didn't already have it.

311 has also helped to streamline NYC operations. Instead of allocating resources on a hunch, the 311 system now produces detailed management reports that assist NYC better determine where city services are being used. In other words, they can now put more staff where the customers actually need the service.

An hispanic woman I spoke to recounted a story about a pothole she had in her back lane. She called 311 and asked if it could be repaired. The customer service agent told her the pothole would be repaired within a few days, and gave her a 'claim number'. She told her if the pothole wasn't repaired within a few days, call back to 311 and they would track down what the problem was. Now that's how city taxpayers should be treated when they call city hall - with respect and like a customer.

I couldn't help but think of 311 during the recent severe weather. If we had it in my home community, I would have been able to call somewhere to inquire about the lack of snowplows in my neighbourhood. I could have called and asked about the lack of garbage or recycling pickup. Rather, I was left rifling through the blue pages hoping to find the right department. Then when I got through, I only got voicemail. Simply not good enough in 2009.

Mayor Robertson and his Vision colleagues are on record as opposing the implementation of 311 in Vancouver. Councillors Louie and Deal fought against it tooth and nail. When it hopefully goes live later this year [assuming the current administration doesn't kill it], it will be one of Judy Rogers' biggest legacies.


Well thank goodness I won't have to memorize all the phone numbers at City Hall anymore.

Can't someone come up with a little more thoughtful reaction than a glib comment about the phone numbers? We're talking about a pretty serious overhaul in the way City Hall serves taxpayers. I welcome 311, and hope council follows through on this idea.

I concur with Daniel. As a former resident of NYC I found the 311 service to be outstanding, progressive and effective. Perhaps not 100% efficient but certainly better than anything on offer, or not, in any Canadian city (barring Calgary) in which I have lived. Both the City of Vancouver and City of Toronto operate (I use the term "operate" facetiously) with considerable secrecy (breeds mistrust) and ignorance (breeds resentment) toward their citizens. The lack of communication and services is untenable. Sadly, the inhabitants of Vancouver and Toronto have been chronically disappointed thus drilling down expectations to nil. It's not even remotely amusing that Vancouver and Toronto attempt to promote themselves as world class cities (OK, Vancouver has cleaner air and a breath taking backdrop). NYC is the benchmark to emulate. If it can be done with a behemoth city like NYC, establishing 311, and the services that support it i.e. snow removal, can be realized on a distinctively Canadian scale. I predict many disastrous incidents through the duration of the 2010 Olympics will irreparably tarnish Vancouver's reputation as "world class."

P.S. Is it just me or are the potholes that litter the Oak Street bridge cavernous or what?!

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