Municipal Election 2014

Hamilton 311 (Candidate Submission)

It's time we do away with 'good enough for the likes of you' when it comes to customer service, and demand that when we call the City, we get the right answer, the first time.

By Jason Allen
Published October 07, 2014

In my platform about changing the culture at City Hall and creating a customer service environment, I tell the story of a neighbour who wanted to build a wheelchair ramp for his mother-in-law who was going to be moving in with him.

He called the City, where he was bounced to several different departments. Finally he was told the City had no guidelines for such a thing, and he was free to build it however he liked.

So he looked up some guidelines on ADA.gov, the website for the American Disabilities Act and headed to the lumber store. Then he got out his chop saw and started work.

When he was halfway through, an inspector showed up and said his ramp wasn't to code, and that he'd have to redo it.

Hamilton in recent history has had a pattern of settling for less than the best. Whether the stadium debacle, or our persistent attempt to short sell ourselves on a rapid transit investment, Craig Burley's famous tweet about things being "good enough for the likes of you" seems to ring true.

Nowhere is that more true than in the service we expect when we deal with City Hall.

311 Service

There is a solution. Hamilton is the largest city in the GTHA, and indeed in all of Canada, without a dedicated 311 service.

A 311 service is a one-stop call centre at City Hall for all of your questions and concerns. Have a complaint about your neighbour's weeds? Call 311. Have a question about putting an extension on your porch? Call 311. Need to inquire about a permit for a coffee shop? Call 311.

Staff would be trained in customer service, and equipped with the knowledge to give you the answer you need, preferably on your first call.

Right now when you call City Hall, chances are you will get a friendly, helpful person in the contact centre who can answer basic questions around issues like garbage pick up.

But to get any other problem solved, you will be transferred somewhere. This is often when the problems start. If you've been transferred to the wrong dept, or to a voice mail with no reassurance of when you will hear back.

A 311 service is quite different. When you call, you reach someone who has the ability to answer a much greater range of questions, and has an escalation path to follow to get the more complex ones dealt with.

Own That Problem

More importantly, the person who answers your call, and to whom you describe your situation, will then own that problem - as we say in the customer service world - until it is resolved.

This one-call solution may be the answer to an awful lot of frustration with city hall. Of all the issues I'm campaigning on, this is the one that crosses all age, gender, and socio-economic boundaries.

Virtually everyone has had a frustrating experience trying to get an answer from the city - through no fault of the front line employees - but because of the structure of the city, and the way concerns are handled. A 311 would fix all of that.

It's time we do away with "good enough for the likes of you" when it comes to customer service, and demand that when we call the City, we get the right answer, the first time.

Jason Allen is a chronic hive whacker in the Kirkendall Neighbourhood.

19 Comments

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By Groan (anonymous) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 16:40:47

Isn't changing a phone number akin to reorienting a stadium... a superficial change that doesn't change anything at all. It's training, transparency and attitude that needs to be changed, not the digits we dial to get information. The poor folks answering the phone are probably reliant on the same POS website as the rest of us to try to answer questions.

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By TheDude (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 19:27:38 in reply to Comment 105233

Isn't changing a phone number akin to reorienting a stadium... a superficial change that doesn't change anything at all.

Not at all. When you call the city right now, you hit a switchboard. They can probably answer the "easy" questions they get asked all the time - garbage pickup, where to direct complaints, taxes, paying parking tickets, etc., but they don't have the training, expertise or experience to properly answer your question - nor should they. Think if you were at the switchboard of a company - your job is to route a call, not answer the question in detail.

I've been hoping we get a 311 service. This is absolutely crucial to making it easier to get an answer to your question. Right now I've got about a half dozen questions I need answered regarding my new home and have no idea where to go - I'm interested in getting some trees planted by the city in my front yard, our sidewalks are a large safety hazard with cracks and heaving, finding out what exactly I require a building permit for, and others. Good luck in your campaign and bringing change to city services!

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted October 07, 2014 at 17:20:35 in reply to Comment 105233

"A 311 service is quite different. When you call, you reach someone who has the ability to answer a much greater range of questions, and has an escalation path to follow to get the more complex ones dealt with."

Training in both info and customer service are a HUGE part of what makes a 311 successful.

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By Hentor (registered) - website | Posted October 08, 2014 at 14:59:28 in reply to Comment 105234

And given your track record in helping make Metrolinx a better customer focused organization, you could take charge at City Hall, Mr. Allen!

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 17:53:46

The problem is rooted in the planning, licensing and building departments which do not communicate with each other. Not answering phone calls or returning voice mail is universal. Sometimes you will pay the same fee to more than one department.

Example: You pay a $200 zoning check fee to the license department and find out you need to get a building permit before going any further. The building department then charges you a $200 zoning fee on top of the permit to make sure your work complies with zoning. You've just paid for the same thing twice. It is policy for licensing to waive the zoning fee if a building permit has been obtained, however most people don't know this and only find out after they've already paid.

I was actually told by a department head that most people pay the fee twice because they don't know any better. He then told me, with a straight face, that I was 'lucky' that someone 'tipped me off' to the fact, and thus I only paid once, but they prefer that people do not know.

So there you have it - customer service at City Hall is considered a tip off to the extortion that is considered standard procedure.

The best idea I've heard is a lot like this one. Mayoral candidate Mike Pattison suggests that business applicants be assigned a case worker to walk them through the procedures. This person would be your only contact and would deal with all the departments on your behalf. Their job would be to make sure your applications get approved quickly and efficiently. They would know the idiosynchracies of each department and get answers as needed instead of the stonewalling members of the public are used to.

However, I think the only solution is a complete gutting and replacement of all these departments and the bylaws that govern them.

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By TheDude (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 19:23:37 in reply to Comment 105235

The problem is rooted in the planning, licensing and building departments which do not communicate with each other.

They're the same department. Building and licensing are the same, planning is in the same area and in regular meetings. What you've said doesn't have a shred of proof or truth.

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 21:26:25 in reply to Comment 105238

Do you work for the city?

Building department contact (source: http://www.hamilton.ca/UPP/BuildingServi... 71 Main Street West (3rd Floor) Phone: 905-546-2720 Email: building@hamilton.ca

Licensing department contact (source: http://www.hamilton.ca/CityDepartments/P... 77 James Street North (Main Floor), Suite #250 Phone: 905-546-2782 (Press "3" for licensing) Email: mle@hamilton.ca

While you are correct in that they are both under Planning and Economic Development and technically branches of the same department, the reality on the ground is much different. For one thing, they are in different buildings.

A high level staffer at the licensing office told me (exact quote) "We don't care about the building department," referring to fees I had paid to the building department which he felt I should have also paid to licensing.

What you've said doesn't have a shred of proof or truth.

I could only wish. I wish none of what I said in that post was true. I would be richer and have years added to my life.

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By TheDude (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 22:08:39 in reply to Comment 105241

Do you work for the city?

I do not, but I did. In fact, when I did, it was in building and licensing, which is why I feel I can speak to the subject.

The licensing number goes to things that require a license, such as taxi drivers, tow truck drivers, businesses, etc. Building handles all building related activities, such as permits, inspections, review of plans, etc.

It looks like licensing may have moved from city hall over to the old Eatons Centre since I worked there, which was about 10 years ago, but when I did, building was on the left half of the 3rd floor, licensing on the right.

But, to be honest, are you confusing what licensing does with what building does? Have you had a bad experience there and are out to tell everyone about it?

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted October 09, 2014 at 17:22:42 in reply to Comment 105242

But, to be honest, are you confusing what licensing does with what building does? Have you had a bad experience there and are out to tell everyone about it?

Actually I've tried to move on with my life for the most part, but I did have a bad experience with building and licensing which I feel is relevant to a discussion about customer service at the City. I think the misinformation, lack of communication and seemingly deliberate obfuscation that I received is indicative of cultural and organizational problems.

I understand what the building and licensing departments do. I got my license from the license department and I got my building permit from the building department (or office, whatever you want to call it.) Because of my situation, the permit was a prerequisite for the license.

They should act more as one department, but they don't. In addition to having to go to two different offices and deal with (at least) two different staff, you can end up handing over money at two different counters when you really only needed to do it at one. And those fees are not cheap.

The City has taken steps to rectify this - the so-called 'one stop for business' counter at the ground floor of City Hall. They can deal with licensing issues but if you need to deal with the building department, you're on your own. This is a baby step but they need to be able to bring more departments together, give out correct information more consistently, and follow through with their clients. They need to 'own the problem.'

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 17:58:09 in reply to Comment 105235

A 311 service would be useful for the simple fact that someone would answer the phone when you call it. As it stands, noone else at City Hall does.

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By rednic (registered) | Posted October 07, 2014 at 23:01:50

after 20 years living in toronto .. I've found the hamilton civil servants to actually be helpful. may be i have low expectations. But it is a huge step up.

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By johnny velvet (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2014 at 08:45:18

I'm pretty sure this is all underway already with the service delivery review and call handling initiative that was passed by Council Dec 2013. I'd post the link, but I forgot my login creds...the report is googlable...

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted October 08, 2014 at 09:28:41

I think I know this guy :) Awesome idea.

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By JP1 (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2014 at 12:04:55

311 for people to stupid to dial 546-2424

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By theguy (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2014 at 13:11:44 in reply to Comment 105252

thats the switchboard. 546-CITY (2489) is the all purposes number

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted October 09, 2014 at 19:13:17 in reply to Comment 105252

See the discussion above. We're not talking about a switchboard.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted October 08, 2014 at 12:47:40 in reply to Comment 105252

Clearly you've never telephoned that number.

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By JP1 (anonymous) | Posted October 09, 2014 at 16:28:34 in reply to Comment 105253

I have many times, never a problem for me.
if they go to a 311 service who do you think will answer the phone? it will be the same as now, only quicker to call.

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By TheDude (registered) | Posted October 09, 2014 at 19:17:17 in reply to Comment 105296

if they go to a 311 service who do you think will answer the phone?

Probably staff trained for this, or if we share your sad view, existing staff who have been retrained.

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