Vancouver's 311: FOI reveals how popular it's become

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


An FOI reveals Vancouver's 311 service is a big hit with its citizens

We've been writing extensively on this blog about why Vancouver's new 311 service has yet to be "officially" launched. 311 is a new service which allows Vancouver citizens and businesses to access City Hall 24 hours a day in dozens of different languages. It was the brainchild of previous City Manager Judy Rogers, but since her sudden departure, plans to promote it appear to have been shelved. If you recall, the Vision/COPE politicians elected to the previous council voted against setting aside the funds necessary to implement 311.

That's why we put in a FOI request at City Hall to see whether 311 was actually being used, despite the lack of promotion and official ribbon cutting.  With details from our FOI now in-hand, we can provide you with an exclusive glimpse into the "mysterious" 311 operations that nobody on Council seems eager to talk about. Here are the highlights:

  • In February 2009, only 6,703 people used the 311 service. By October 2009, that number had increased to over 35,000 callers.
  • The average speed of answering calls went from 15 seconds in February '09 to 3 minutes in November '09.
  • In November '09 the largest number of calls (11,083) were described as miscellaneous. The second biggest category fell into the area of "Engineering - Solid Waste".
  • Clocking in at only 12 queries, the Community Services Group - Social Development received the lowest number of queries last November. These are the folks that deal with the City's housing and homelessness policy.

Based on the lukewarm response to 311 from Vancouver Council, you'd think that almost nobody is interested in the services it provides. However, looking at the numbers of people calling in and emailing 311, nothing could be further from the truth.

Over a quarter of a million people called 311 between the period of February and November 2009. In the period covering July - Nov '09, there were an average of almost 36,000 queries per month. If that were to be extrapolated into next year, the 311 centre would receive an astonishing 432,000+ calls over the year. Not bad for a service that's had no profile, a lack of political support and been left to wither on the vine.

With the Olympic Games now behind us and the Paralympics wrapping up in about a week or so, let's hope that Vancouver Council can find some way of promoting 311 as a way Vancouver citizens can better access their city hall. Unfortunately, it's been months since the "soft" launch of the service, and it would appear an "official" launch is nowhere on the horizon.


So does this service actually exist? I tried 311 a few weeks ago and got a number unobtainable response.

The Regular Council Meeting on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 agenda item #1 "Update on the Progress of 311 Implementation" has some related information. The administrative report presented as part of this agenda item, says,

The introduction of “311” calling in the City will be accompanied by an extensive
communications plan beginning in mid September, 2009. This delay after the introduction will
ensure that the complex task of integrating new business processes into the Call Centre can
be appropriately tested and confirmed before broad information is made available.
The elements of the campaign will include:
• direct mail to all residents and businesses within the City of Vancouver,
• creation of a brief video outlining the 311 service, and
• a media launch event at the 311 Contact Centre.

[information on how 311 is not 911]

Following the official public launch of the service, the 311 number will be used when the City
of Vancouver communicates with citizens. A logo integrating the 311 number with the City of
Vancouver emblem is in development."

This is the biggest waste of taxpayer money to come out of city hall in as long as I can remember. Someone who can't be bothered to open a phone book (or in a more modern era go to to find the phone number they require to contact city hall probably doesn't have a real issue to begin with. I am embarassed that this idea came out of the NPA in the first place.

Too lazy to open a phone book? Give me a break, if only it were that simple. With literally hundreds of numbers finding the right one can be very time consuming and even daunting task. People give up their search or don't even begin it in the first place knowing what a hassle it will be to a). find the right person b). not being given a case-number so whatever they ask for can easily fall through the cracks and nothing ever happens.

This barrier removes the accountability of the city from the very people they are to meant to serve and who pay their salaries - the citizens and business of Vancouver!

This isn't an idea the NPA cooked up, it's a model that's been very successful in other cities, eg: Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Chicago San Francisco, New York. They've been successfully using their 311 service for years. Vancouver is late to the party as usual. And these cities aren't afraid to publicize their 311 service.

"In New York City, 3-1-1 is used by city officials as one of several sources of measurement and information about the performance of city services. Important dates in the history of New York's 3-1-1 service include December 20, 2005, when it received its record [one-day number of calls] high of 240,000 calls, due to the first day of the 2005 New York City transit strike, and June 20, 2007, when it received its 50 millionth call." from the 311 wiki at:

What you fail to report is that several previous department switchboard lines were gradually directed to 311. That's why the numbers grew over time! Not because it's "popular" but because you don't have a choice!! The call count you report is distortion of what was previously handled by the existing departments. Callers for certain departments often complain of delays of as much as 8 minutes. Still happening, I've tried.

Also failed to mention was the exorbitant capital cost of setting up the renovated building and purchasing the equipment required, $20,000,000?(to be confirmed) Next you can prove the promised $5,000,000/yr internal efficiencies. Then why don't you mention that several departments have had staff positions cut to transfer "cost savings" to pay for the new staff at 311. The cost savings have yet to be proven and the cut staff previously performed their duties much more efficiently for certain departments and also had duties other than phone functions, whose services are now sorely missed.
Yes, new staff added, for which HR job postings seem to have excluded hiring any inside applicants. How about the new 311 manager's salaries, $126,000 and $81,000 for answering the phone!?!

Why not report on a 311 service that's been active for a while? City of Edmonton - "Boondoggle" fails to deliver promised savings.

If Vancouver's system isn't performing as expected that'd be pretty sad as we had dozens of other cities with similar systems to model ours after. Taking the good lessons and learning from the mistakes that others have made before us with 311.

Or we could just pretend Vancouver is so unique that other city's lessons aren't relevant to us? Put on the horse-blinders and forge ahead re-inventing the wheel ourselves, as we often do, and living with the consequences.

I don't care about savings - this has dramatically increased the level of service the city provides to its citizens.

I had an obscure water pressure question because. I called 311, was connected to a general operator within a minute, then she passed me through to a "specialist" who answered all of my questions knowledgeably.

I am a satisfied city customer!

Yes, I used to look up the number for each department that I wanted to talk to; animal control, solid waste, all these things. You could reach them directly and get an answer to your concern in a matter of moments. Now we call into a central phone room staffed by people who are only trained to respond at the first level, take down the, hopefully, relevant information and then you get to sit back and wait for weeks to see if someone can get back to you about it. I've got street lights out, people parking on my street instead of their own and I've been told, because I had the temerity to question the "local traffic calming measures" installed and about to be installed in our neighbourhood that I have no place in this city any longer.

The more I deal with city hall lately the more I like meeting dogs in the park. Even pit bulls have been more pleasant to consider dealing with than our current crop of civic project planners and money spenders.

Now, I'm off to file an incident report about people parking on our street while work is going on on their street. I was ticketed for the same situation a couple weeks ago. It's time to see if this apples to others.

Check out!

Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement