Vancouver 311: Is feedback line a victim of its own success?
'I think that culture of complaint ... it's a challenge in any city,' says city councillor
For Brent Ash it was the powerful drone of leaf blowers in his Kitsilano neighbourhood that had him reaching for the phone to dial Vancouver's 311 centre to complain.
"They make so much noise and there's no control over it," said the architect who has lived in Kits for 35 years. "I've called about noise certainly."
Calls like this to 311 continue to climb, in some instances dramatically, while the city is now looking for ways to keep the service from growing out of control.
In 2015, there were 1,345,417 calls, whether by phone, made online or through a new app to 311. That's up from 1,033,881 in 2011.
"That's a lot," said Darcy Wilson who is a director for the city's Digital and Contact Centre Services. "That's certainly significant growth. You know in the first year  we probably did 200,000 calls."
The city now employs 100 citizen service representatives or CSRs to answer 311 calls on something as simple as wanting to know whether city hall is open, to a request for a building inspection or a report of abandoned garbage.
The top request in 2015 was about the how to use the city's PayByPhone app. There were more than 70,000 calls on that one issue alone.
But along with the growth of fairly benign interactions are a rise in complaints to the city about what neighbours are doing, how people are maintaining their properties along with straight-up feedback about how the city is being run by its politicians.
'Are people complaining more?'
"Are people complaining more?" said city councillor Andrea Reimer. "I think when you give them a prompt to complain, yes they're going to complain more."
Under the category Citizen Feedback, which includes a caller sounding off on any topic, calls jumped from 4,870 in 2011 to 9,825 in 2015.
The numbers are even more dramatic for garbage and parking problems.
In 2011, there were 8,194 calls for debris or illegal dumping with a huge jump to to 24,526 in 2015.
When it comes to parking, there were 36,831 calls about cars parked at meters or for vehicles parked on a residential street in front of someone's house, which also sometimes gets reported as abandoned cars [2,300 in 2015], even if they are legally allowed to be there.
Overall, the rise in the number of calls from neighbours complaining about neighbours has been steady.
'Scratch their mad spot'
"I think people are always emotional around stuff and they want value for money right?" said Wilson, who was the call centre's first hire in 2009. "From their property taxes, to the value of their house, to what's going on in their neighbourhood.
"The phone calls are challenging, but we don't see the raw anger. It's very rare and the staff are trained to listen to the person and decompress a little bit. You scratch their mad spot and find out what's going on so we can help them with the solution."
The call centre and its staff run on a yearly budget of $5 million. Each call-in costs on average $5.50 and both Wilson and Richard Traer, who is the call centre's manager, say the city will move towards reducing its footprint in the coming years.
"As we're trying to shift people to do things themselves online and through digital solutions, I'm not sure our growth will be — in terms of head count — will grow dramatically over the next seven years," said Traer.
"I don't think it will be as big as it's grown into," added Wilson. "I think the footprint of the call centre should be smaller, if we give citizens what they want through other tools."
Still, nobody is saying residents shouldn't keep calling 311, no matter the reason.
Reimer says the volume of data created from 311 has helped her and her colleagues create better policy, and she's keen to see how a push to digital will improve that.
"Calling is good, and we're really happy to take the calls," she said. "But what the app does, is it allows us to get a picture, geo tag. It allows us to get right back to you to let you know how the issues resolved."
Vancouver 311 factoids
- 80 per cent of calls are a yes/no type answer, while 20 per cent require a service request.
- Each request receives a case number so that a caller can follow up if needed.
- Average wait times to speak to a CSR is 120 seconds.
- In 2015, 31,023 callers hung up before speaking with an CSR.
- Each CSR takes between 100 to 130 calls each shift.
- 311's seventh year anniversary in Vancouver is Feb. 15, 2016.
- Calgary opened the first 311 line in Canada in 2005 and has since taken 11 million calls.
With files from Tamara Baluja