311 calls for help handled so slowly, Winnipeg misses nearly half its targets
City data shows 1,762 calls for service from 2013 still overdue
By Jacques Marcoux, Sean Kavanagh, CBC News Posted: Feb 25, 2016 6:00 AM CT Last Updated: Feb 25, 2016 6:00 AM CT
From two months to repair hazardous sidewalks to nearly five days to collect missed garbage, average response times to 311 calls for help miss internal targets in nearly half of Winnipeg's service request categories.
A CBC analysis of average turnaround times for more than 860,000 citizen requests for service submitted through the city's 311 call centre since 2013 revealed internal response time targets are not being met for nearly half of all service request categories. In some cases, response times are more than 10 times longer than internal service standards.
Examples of missed targets in 2015 include:
- 4,661 requests to remove objects obstructing rights of way: four-day performance target; average of 10.7 days to resolve.
- 684 calls for repairing hazardous sidewalks: two-day performance target; average of 61.8 days to fix.
- 6,159 requests for missed garbage collection: two-day performance target; average of 4.7 days to collect.
- Click to skip to bottom of story to view all performance results
Detailed performance reports for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015 were obtained through a freedom of information request. They compare internal benchmark resolution times for close to 700 types of service requests to the actual average time it took the city to close cases in each ward.
'I expect things to be done quicker'
It took a local business owner over 12 months, countless calls to 311 and ultimately media attention for the City of Winnipeg to partially repair a crumbling and hazardous sidewalk in Point Douglas last fall.
"I called 311 and reported the situation, and I did not get any sort of response," said Point Douglas contractor Eric Dihic.
The city ultimately said the delay was due to a system error that inadvertently closed the file before the repair was completed.
"I expect to have a fast response towards any situation like this," said Dihic.
The data suggests that, as a whole, service levels across neighbourhoods are relatively uniform, with no one ward getting better service than others. The three-year snapshot shows residents of St. Boniface and Mynarski are the most frequent requesters of municipal services that require action by the city, with more than 64,000 and 63,000 service requests, respectively, over that time period.
By a large margin, the departments of public works and water and waste bear the biggest burden of service requests, ranging from pothole repairs to basement sewer backups. The top requests since 2013 are for missed garbage and recycling collection (72,440 cases), requests for pickup of bulky waste items (39,510 cases), damage to carts by waste collection crews (35,362 cases) and housing complaints related to properties (24,992 cases).
Data speaks to condition of city: Mynarski councillor
Coun. Ross Eadie, whose ward spans most of the North End, said the service residents are getting is a reflection of years of departmental belt-tightening, and it has to stop if the city wants to meet its own targets and the expectations of residents.
"Sixty-one days to repair a sidewalk? That's not good, but I know of one that took two years, and somebody got hurt on it. But we kept sending it in," Eadie said.
He frequently sends his assistant out in his ward to document chronic issues, including taking photos, then forwards those directly to the appropriate department, he said.
The CBC analysis provides compelling evidence of the degree to which residents are undeserved, he said.
"I think it tells us the state of the city is not what the mayor thinks, or thought it was when he campaigned."
South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes said she's struggled to find ways to improve front-line services since she was elected last year. Her office gets swamped with angry calls from residents who struggle to get satisfactory services from the city, she said.
"Usually by the time they get to us they are … upset," she said.
"Rightly so. If I call one, two, three times, trying to get an answer, I want an answer."
The current situation is unacceptable, Lukes said, and she promised to continue to meet with city administration about improving services.
Some areas improving, others worsening
When the city's new garbage-collection provider, Emterra, began trash pickup in 2012, residents flooded ward offices with complaints. Since that time, the kinks have mostly been worked out of the system, with missed garbage collection complaints plummeting from more than 20,000 in 2013 to just over 6,000 last year, the performance data indicates.
But despite that sharp decrease, average turnaround times have actually increased over that time, from 2.8 days to 4.7 days. The target is two days.
In contrast, requests for pickup of bulky waste items that don't fit inside the garbage bins have remained steady at approximately 13,000 per year, but average service times have become quicker, going from 8.7 days in 2013 to just 5.4 days last year.
The reports show that as of Dec 31, 2015, 1,767 cases dating back to 2013 are still active, 2,870 from 2014 are still open and another 4,921 outstanding service requests from last year.
Priority is public safety, city COO says
The data shows that roughly 200 incidents related to missing manhole covers are called in to 311. Although the target response time is four hours, in practice the city has taken as long as 22 days to close the file.
Michael Jack, Winnipeg's chief operating officer and the city second-in-command, said in some cases, the data doesn't provide relevant context. For example, in the case of missing manhole covers, city staff often immediately secure the area to ensure safety, but may not close the file until the missing cover is located or a replacement is found.
"Highest priority for the city is always dealing with those that are hazardous, those that are high-priority, those that might impact public safety," Jack said.
The 311 employees make a determination over the phone about to the urgency of service requests based solely on the description of the caller, he added. If city workers arrive on site and determine the description given over the phone was not accurate, they might downgrade the priority ranking of the service request, which doesn't necessarily get reflected in the reporting, he said.
In some cases, service standards might need to be reviewed to ensure they reflect reality, Jack said.
"That's what the departments are expected to be doing on a constant basis, is looking at whether or not the service standards that they are holding themselves to are actually realistic or not," he said.
"We are constantly looking at ways to not only improve the level of service we provide to Winnipeggers, but how quickly we do that," said Jack.
Data reflects departmental performance, not 311 operations
Although calls for service originate in the 311 call centre, establishing service standards and ensuring they are met are the responsibility of individual departments, the city says.
The call centre fields anywhere between one million and two million calls per year from citizens, 311 reports state, with 70 per cent simple information requests that are immediately dealt with over the phone. The other 30 per cent, referred to as "service requests," require the city to mobilize resources and take action in order close the file.
The 311 call centre forwards those service requests to the appropriate departments, which must then act; 311 closes a file when notified by a department that the issue has been resolved.
- Service request numbers cited in this story reflect unique actionable items contained in internal reports and therefore do not necessarily match publicly available service request numbers from the 311 reports, as multiple calls can be related to the same issue.
- Average response times provided to CBC News were broken down by ward. In order to identify citywide average response times for each service request category, a weighted average off all ward averages was calculated.
- Download the raw data in tabular format.
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