In September, Toronto will be launching a 311 municipal information hotline.
Bandied about since the 2003 municipal election by mayoral candidate now Mayor, David Miller, the hotline has been on a busy signal due to concerns ranging from cost (about $35 million) to, as one Councillor observed, the vague notion of “politics” (who knows what politics were at play, but Councillor Milczyn mentioned some “foot-dragging”).
Given the size of Toronto and the myriad services it offers, it’s about time we had a single, simple number to call.
Evidence seems to suggest that 311 services work well for citizens. Firstly, it’s an easy number to remember. Secondly, callers use this one number to access city services and need not navigate labyrinthine city departments.
If one has internet access, for the most part, services can be searched, information provided and if one still needs to hear the dulcet tones of another human being’s reassuring voice (or the chippy vibe of an operator with attitude), numbers to call are offered.
But not everyone has net access and not everyone is Google-savvy enough to want to negotiate city websites. Hence, the 311 option.
A few cities offer 311, such as Vancouver, New York, Chattanooga, TN, and Chicago and it seems these systems are working well.
But the 311 service isn’t merely about offering an easier way to reach municipal government departments. This service also enhances citizen engagement and citizen engagement is vital to any democracy.
Calling 311 helps citizens make sense of their municipal government and allows them to make better use of the services offered. It reduces the frustration that usually accompanies hunting for a phone number, being told you’ve called the wrong department and then spending minutes being passed around. Getting lost in the municipal maze can make some feel that their local government isn’t there for them.
Further, citizens can feel closer to governments (critical to the principle of subsidiarity) when they are able to obtain, without headache and confusion, information or register a complaint by dialing a three-digit phone number.
Of course, enhancing citizen engagement through a municipal hotline demands that governments adequately promote this service. If citizens don’t know about it, the hotline is not much use.
For now, Toronto 311 will handle calls for water, solid waste, and transportation concerns and questions. Parks and licensing will be added later.
Hopefully, Toronto will realize how valuable this tool can be and will promote it.