Dead Air on 311: Is this the Best strategy for Vancouver?

Post by Daniel Fontaine in



Earlier this week I received a call from CBC radio's On the Coast. They wanted me to appear on the show to speak about Vancouver's new 311 program that will be officially launched on June 15th. 311 is a new service that will open up City Hall 24/7. It will be operated in up to 160 different languages in order to better connect Vancouver with its diverse cultural communities.

Don't get me wrong, I was pleased to join Stephen Quinn to speak about one of my favourite topics, however, I was a bit perplexed as to why they didn't ask someone from the City. That's when I found out the CBC had asked the City, but they turned down the offer. That's right, the communications department headed by Laurie Best decided it didn't want to communicate.

Some are wondering if 311 had been initiated by Brent Humphrey and Vision Vancouver, if the Communications department would be playing this so low key? Would they be turning down wonderful media opportunities to talk about a major new service the City is about to launch? These are but two in a series of questions quietly posed to me by several City staff who are shaking their heads at what they believe has been a botched communications strategy. Holy Hear-A-Pin-Drop, Batman, is a new PR contract in the works??

I've been working in the communications field for over 10 years now, so I believe I speak with a teeny bit of authority when I say the City's decision to stay quiet on 311 is nothing short of bizarre. This is a great service that's proven wildly popular in every other city that's adopted it - so why keep quiet?

What could explain why the City doesn't want to use every opportunity to extol the virtues of this investment from the previous Council? Could it be perhaps the program was initiated by the wrong government? If you recall, Vision Vancouver were huge opponents of 311 and voted against it every step of the way. They were afraid it might impact jobs at City Hall and they said it cost too much money.

According to my sources, the communications strategy for 311 is to "remain really quiet" until just before the launch. Best is worried that if they speak about 311 before June 15th, a few folks may call the number by accident before it goes live. So what? If they do, they're simply going to get a message saying it's not live yet. Get over it. 

Imagine if Best's strategy was applied in the private sector. "Shhhh...don't tell anyone we're about to launch the new Chevy Volt for fear customers might rush to the dealership asking for one. Let's only start putting out our ads a couple of days before the cars hit the dealership floors." You get the picture.

The City is so afraid of promoting the 311 investment that you can't even find a reference to it on their website. Sure, type in 311 and you will find a plethora of dry financial reports. However, you won't find so much as a little blurb about what Council is doing with 311 or why they've decided to invest in it. The search came up blank. I dare say that's a lot like the communications strategy so far.

If you now call the general line at Vancouver City Hall (604-873-7011) during regular business hours, the lines are automatically transferred to the new 311 call centre. I tried it myself, and it worked wonderfully. I had a very pleasant person on the phone help me connect to someone I was looking for at City Hall. So far, so good.

Ok...perhaps I'm being a bit harsh and there simply is nothing good to say about 311 right now?

Well, my CBC segment only lasted 8 minutes, but in that time I was able to communicate to the citizens of Vancouver the project will come in under budget. Great News!

The project will not cost taxpayers an additional penny to operate as the annual $5 million budget is drawn from internal efficiencies. Great News!

I mentioned to CBC listeners how 311 will dramatically reduce unnecessary calls to 911, thus ensuring there is an operator available for you at all times when you have a real emergency. Great News!

I was able to let citizens know that 311 provides management with new tools to cut costs and reduce inefficiencies. Great News! Especially when the City is looking to save $10 million dollars out of future budgets.

Calgary has it. Winnipeg has it. Edmonton has it. Windsor, Ontario even has it. Windsor! Soon, Vancouver will have it. And I predict other citizens in Metro Vancouver will want it. A shame no one wants to talk about it.

Former City Manager Judy Rogers deserves all the credit for pushing this initiative through, and for understanding the benefits it will provide to both citizens and management at City Hall. She made me a convert! I'm pretty sure if she were still there, I wouldn't have received that call from the CBC.


There are wonderful things to be said about the service. It's too bad that the City Communications dept is taking such a backseat to announce this service. The money has been call centre, new equipment, staff are being hired and trained..are they looking for it to fail?? Another item to pin on the former administration???

I for one find that there are numerous redundant people at the City (union and exempt) and hopefully this will streamline those jobs and encourage some to retire early!

Well, one funny thing about a City's administration is that it's a bureaucracy that can legitimately change its mind every 3 years as the City administration quite rightfully takes its policy cues from elected City Council. There is nothing sinister about this. What would in fact be suspicious is if the City administration advocated one thing and City Council advocated something else, or if City Council suddenly changed its mind on an issue after an election to please the administration. It's a democracy after all.

Vision and Cope simply never liked 311, they thought it was a waste of money and questioned its efficiency (and I and many electors totally agree), and now that the public has chosen them to form government, why should the administration (who works for them because they work for us) show that they're thrilled about the virtues of a policy that our government voted against.

I'll admit that communicating the existence of this service is necessary and I expect that to occur, but you have to admit that the administration is in an almost comedically awkward position in that they are constrained to finish a project that their current bosses never wanted started in the first place. "We are thrilled to present to the public this complete waste of money!" On issues of policy, the administration is not autonomous from public will as expressed by the character of Council, and certainly not their Communications department.

PS: Thanks for the Winnipeg link, very informative :) ?!

This style of posturing is symptomatic of childish behaviour that emanates from minds that believe they know it all. Cocky pride that wants and thinks that only they are right. Those infected with this lack of graciousness usually become angry or sulk when found out.

Much as this Vision administration wishes to imagine itself as pure and new, the hypocritical in-camera meetings, expert hired from developer they pilloried in the campaign and unceremoniously firing of excellent staff to simply put in their own friends because they don't want experts looking over their shoulders, speaks volumes about their mean spirits and immaturity.

This will probably lead to some whopping mistakes because some of these people aren't interested in any experienced opinions and they're learning on the job - at our expense.

I suspect its the same group of people that didn't like it when the City adopted say computers, microsoft windows, or SAP. Its so easy to put down something new & influential. 311 will save the City a great deal of money in the long term. Its a very powerful tool and they should be spreading the word. Its a system that can track public information and can put a tremendous amount of data into formats that allow staff to track changes, trends and statistics on how to serve the public better. It will help staff do their jobs better and faster because they will be more readily informed and will make the City operate in a far less "idiosyncratic" manner.

Bizarre! As a recent 'transplant' from Calgary, I've had first-hand experience with 3-1-1, and know what a superb public service it is.

Too bad they're apparently going to keep it a secret.

Phone systems are so 1990. I'd be more impressed with a comprehensive website. It would be easier to staff and would still be relevant in 5 years from now.


311 is more than a "phone system". 80% of all enquiries can be dealt with at 311 without having to be transferred to someone else. In addition, a unilingual website is great if you can speak English, but 311 will offer service in 160 different languages. New York has been running a relevant 311 for years...and it remains quite relevant.

Check out!

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