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Got beef with Toronto? A new 311 pilot aims to make it easier to complain — and get results

Got a beef with city hall?

City staff say they’re trying to make it easier for service complaints to be heard through a new streamlined a dispute process. It’s a change some councillors say is overdue because the current system is frustrating and confusing for city residents.

That work is detailed in a report to a new committee set up by Mayor Olivia Chow with the aim of improving “bread and butter” service delivery and ensuring citizen complaints are addressed quickly and effectively.

Until recently, each of Toronto’s 49 divisions had its own complaints and compliments process to deal with requests from city residents. That could mean the system to file a complaint and escalate it could be dealt with differently, depending on the division.

Most of those complaints come through the city’s 311 call centre, which will now use a single process instead of unique one for each division, said Gary Yorke, executive director of the city’s customer experience division, which includes 311 Toronto. 

Now, complaints about all four dozen or so divisions will come through the city’s 311 call centre, says Gary Yorke, executive director of the city’s customer experience division, which includes 311 Toronto.

“It was very confusing from a public perspective,” he said. “We’re looking at it from the customer’s lens, not from the city or divisional lens anymore.”

311 handles over a million calls a year for some of Toronto’s most basic services, including pothole patching, garbage bin repair and roadkill pickup. The city started a pilot in late February to streamline the complaints and compliments process with divisions that are the subject of the most frequent calls.

Process to be streamlined throughout 2024

The city spent 2023 developing the plan and will expand the pilot program to more city divisions throughout 2024. Staff worked with Toronto’s ombudsman to develop a system that’s more transparent and easier for a resident to escalate if they’re not happy, Yorke said.

The 311 centre gathers data from all of its customer interactions and the city plans to use it to measure the pilot’s effectiveness. That will also include establishing response time standards for some basic services, he added.

“We’re here to serve the public,” Yorke said. “So, we want to be very clear on the expectations and holding the city accountable for delivering those services as well.”

Last year, 311 received approximately 1.3 million contacts. Of those, 487,000 resulted in requests for service, up slightly from 479,000 the year before.

Current complaints system ‘broken’: Bradford

Coun. Brad Bradford said he’s eager to see the committee press forward because the current complaints system is broken. Councillors are regularly asked to intervene on behalf of ward residents when something goes wrong with a city service and the complaints process itself is confusing, he said. 

Coun. Stephen Holyday was the lone vote against a request of city staff to study new taxes and fees Toronto could implement. He is warning the request opens the door to increased costs at a time when people in the city are struggling.
Coun. Stephen Holyday has been appointed chair of a new service excellence committee at city hall which will focus on improvements to city services. Next week, it will dig into a staff report on streamlining the complaints and compliments process across all city divisions. (Alexis Raymond/CBC)

“For most folks, it’s as simple as when they pick up the phone to 311 and they place that complaint, they just want to see it resolved,” he said. “That’s all they’re looking for. They shouldn’t have to come to my office or another councillor’s office to get that taken care of. These are taking care of the basics, very simple things.” 

Bradford, a former civil servant himself, said at times with large organizations like the City of Toronto, silos develop. The fact that multiple, duplicate complaints processes exist is evidence of that, he said.

“Divisional silos are a very real thing,” he said.

“We need to do a better job of having people work across divisions… Torontonians are just looking for service, and they don’t really care where it’s coming from.”

Holyday to lead service improvement committee

Coun. Stephen Holyday was tapped by Chow to lead the committee. While the two often disagree over policy, Holyday said they’re aligned in the need to bolster city service delivery. 

Holyday said city residents need the complaints process to be clear. They also need to know the outcome of issues they raise, which become an opportunity for the city to learn, he added.

“The types of issues that people are complaining about, they expose areas for improvement, or where there’s gaps in the process, or maybe even gaps in the resources that people are asking for,” he said.

A spokesperson for Chow said the mayor created the committee to help make life easier for people across the city.

“The committee will also work to make the process of reporting complaints easier and more transparent,” Arianne Robinson said in a statement.

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