Edmonton’s 311: six month status report

As you’ve probably heard by now, the City’s 311 service is not performing as well as expected. The Sun first reported the story last week, and the Journal followed up with an article yesterday. They key point mentioned in both is that wait times to connect to an operator are far longer than originally anticipated. As a result, an interactive voice response system is being considered for next year. I can’t imagine that will make callers any happier, even if it does make their calls slightly faster.

I personally think they should put more resources into 311 online. How many citizens even realize that they get online access to a lot of the information and services that 311 provides? The best way to reduce call times is to increase self-service options and quality so that citizens can bypass the phone altogether.

Fortunately, there are new self-service features being developed for release in October. The City will still need to communicate their existence effectively, however.

Background

The CRTC approved the use of the 311 phone number for municipal services back in November 2004, and Calgary became the first city to launch 311 on May 8, 2005. Here in Edmonton, City Council approved the service at its May 9, 2006 meeting. Edmonton became the first city in North America to use SAP’s CRM application to deliver 311.

The 311 service officially launched on December 16, 2008. Implementation was approved at a cost not to exceed $10 million (and it is on track to come in about $1.5 million under budget). Half of that amount came from an internal loan, which is to be repaid from operating savings (the other half came from a special dividend in 2005).

Six Months In

The report that went to the Executive Committee this week isn’t incredibly long at 7 pages, but it does have lots of information. Here are some graphics to help make it easier to understand the first six months of 311 operation in Edmonton.

Call lengths are one of the reasons everyone is complaining:

Wait times to get through to an operator are another concern:

The 311 system was supposed to help the City capture the estimated 160,000 missed calls each year, but so far it is on track to make things much worse:

The report contains information about the top ten services:

Transit inquiries make up a significant portion of all 311 calls, followed by Community Services inquiries. There’s a clear opportunity for transit to do more to reduce the number of calls going through 311. I find it odd that trip planning is such a common request actually, given that there’s a separate number for that (BusLink) not to mention the online trip planner and Google Maps.

Here’s the breakdown by department:

There are a few more graphs (without data values unfortunately) in the report, so take a look at those too. They show that the number of calls answered within 25 seconds is on the rise, and that the time it takes to get through to someone is declining.

Does this report suggest that 311 is “a disaster”? I don’t think so. All it shows is that there is work to do, and it sounds like the 311 team is on the case. Hopefully the departments they serve are as well.

  • “I find it odd that trip planning is such a common request actually, given that there’s a separate number for that (BusLink) not to mention the online trip planner and Google Maps.”

    Er, old people don’t like talking to phone witches and don’t use the internet. If the city wants to cut down on the number of people calling their 311 line for transit inquiries they should stop offering discount bus passes for seniors.

  • Yeah, they spent $8.5 million on an answering service? Let’s see an independent audit confirming that they’ve actually made the cuts to get the 50% savings of that amount. I doubt they did.

    Seems like a big waste of money to me.

  • The cost savings are to be realized over time, not right away. I think it’s pretty good that the service came in under budget and will end up paying for itself. How many other City services can say that?

  • It is a big waste of money. In the sector I work in, the people who are registering patrons for classes know NOTHING about the appropriate levels for children in learn-to-swim programs. We have had nothing but problems with registrations, rental bookings, and the like because the facilities are no longer in control of bookings.

  • DaveM

    Three minutes seems to be an awfully short call expected call time.

    It takes 1-2 minutes for someone to explain an issue by itself.

  • Sorry Mack, but it doesn’t matter if the project came in under budget when they shouldn’t have been spending the money in the first place.

    Not sure I see the point in a service where I’ve got to explain an issue to a person who likely doesn’t know the solution, only to pass it along to someone else who can actually discuss the issue with a reasonable level of knowledge.

    I ran into this as a reporter with some PR people where I had to filter everything through them instead of talking directly to the person who had the answers. It was inefficient and stupid.

    Maybe our city council should be asking the question “should we?” instead of “can we?” when it comes to things like this. City council sometimes seems to be something akin to a drunk who just discovered the taxpayer wallet.

  • I think there’s definitely room for improvement with regards to training, Alain, that’s very true. The operators can definitely be better prepared.

    I wouldn’t discount the service outright, however. There’s probably a reason that well over 50 other municipalities in North America adopted the service.

  • Mack, I think you’re missing the point. There are already people at city hall with training in their field. Why not let them just answer those questions directly?

    It takes a lot of money, as we can see, to train people and establish the whole 311 system. The only thing you need operators for is to simply direct the call and that’s it.

  • No Alain, I don’t think I’m missing the point. I fully recognize that there are specific people you could talk to about specific things. That’s the problem. How do you know which one to talk to? How do you find that person? That’s what the 311 system facilitates.

    Another advantage of 311: it provides greater insight into the inquiries citizens are making, which will help the City improve the services it provides.

  • Unfortunately Mack, the 311 system does not facilitate the communication efficiently. There was no need for such a HUGE call centre (which is essentially what it is) when calling a switchboard would ultimately garner the same effect. As long as the people answering the phones are competent and know what department to put calls through to, there is no need for a 311 service that is clearly costing more money than it’s worth and not providing accurate, efficient service.

    Secondly, it doesn’t provide greater insight into inquiries, because City Departments already report on the kinds of questions they receive. And if there are more abandoned calls now than there were before, the CoE has a LESS accurate picture of what citizens need or want to know.

  • The service is pretty new. It obviously needs to improve, but I think they’ll reach the target efficiencies before long.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that 311 is “clearly costing more money than it’s worth.” There are no numbers to back that up. Let’s not forget that this service will pay for itself over a relatively short period of time. The initial funding was mostly a loan.

    With 311, all requests are reported in the same way across all services. You have consistency. So you can actually compare them, which wasn’t realistic before, even if various departments did report some things.

    The increase in abandoned calls is definitely cause for concern, but the last two months show that they are turning that trend around. Hopefully they keep improving.

  • Linda

    Looks like 311 has made some great strides with “311 Online” upgrades to the edmonton.ca website. Check it out.

  • .: Having dealt with 311 this week, I have to agree with Alain and Megan on this. Whenever I have called 311 and asked for follow-up, there never is any. I called yesterday about something that could’ve been answered by the appropriate person in Transportation quickly, had that person been given the opportunity to answer.

    Instead, 24 hours have passed, no one has contacted me, and when I called 311, I was advised that my concern remains an “open file” in someone’s in-box.

    311 just doesn’t work.

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