the big number
the number of 311 people’s contacts in Toronto in 2021, according to 311 Toronto’s annual report. That’s about the same as the number of calls to 311 ten years ago, but the data can be deceiving.
During a luncheon address hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade last week, Mayor John Tory . said told the assembled audience that this city shouldn’t settle for just being “adequate.” We must strive for better.
I agree, but if I know exactly how Tory intends to make it happen. The mayor has been in office for two terms. It runs for a third, with no major competition and no real platform so far. It’s unclear how he will even reach a basic standard of adequacy, let alone surpass it.
Which is a shame, because these days Toronto feels broken. Water fountains don’t work. Park toilets are still being reported to be locked† Trash cans on the street are often broken, overflowing with trash, or both. Sidewalks and bike paths are blocked by construction equipment. Some pools are closed. Some swimming lessons are cancelled.
Basic city services are dysfunctional.
There are concrete things Tory could suggest to remedy the shortcomings. Part of the solution, of course, is a frank reckoning with Toronto’s budget. Good services cost money. Toronto has one of the lowest real estate taxes in the GTA. The cause of the broken city we see lately may be as simple as the residents getting what they pay for.
But I don’t think it’s just about money. Tory Town Hall has also become increasingly reactive and less proactive, with politicians and bureaucrats waiting to get a bunch of complaints before taking action.
The city’s 311 service has been instrumental in this trend. In recent years, data related to the number of complaint calls has taken on an undue importance in the functioning of the town hall.
Requests to 311 are increasingly cited as a measure of how the city performs in providing services. Recent reports have surfaced complaint data about regulations on things like multi-tenant housing, rental building standards, e-scooters, fireworks and noise from gas leaf blowers, which are used to justify both action and inaction.
The problem is that City Hall can use their 311 overall stats to suggest that everything is basically fine, or at least not getting worse. Ten years ago, the city reported about 1.4 million calls to 311. Last year the number was basically the same: 1.4 million contacts.
One way to interpret that is to suggest that city services haven’t really changed in the last ten years. No improvement and no decline. If more stuff was broken, more people would call.
Just to be clear, I don’t think that’s right at all. Many people who notice that something is wrong in their neighborhood don’t bother reporting it to 311, either because they’ve had a fruitless experience solving a problem in the past, or because they assume someone else has it. has already reported. I am certainly guilty of this. I tend to make a list of things that disturb me in my neighborhood every time I go for a walk, but I’ve only made a handful of calls to 311 over the years.
There is also strong evidence from other cities that over-reliance on 311 data results in a skewed perspective, as there tends to be a typical demographic profile of those who complain often – generally older and whiter than the city’s average population .
Katya Abazajian, a writer and fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, has collected some data on this, noting that “several studies have shown that 311 data is a more accurate predictor of geographic breakdowns by class, race, and neighborhood change than that it is a predictor of the real needs of a community.”
The point about neighborhood change is especially interesting: gentrifying neighborhoods are often the source of more contacts than stable neighborhoods, as conflicts between established and new residents generate many phone calls. But they do not reflect what the inhabitants of the city really need.
So if Tory is really looking to improve the service – to achieve better than enough – he might start by modernizing how 311 works. The call center model is both outdated and inefficient. Take some of the 311 workers outside, visit parks, community centers and construction sites. Have them walk the streets and make service requests for every broken garbage can or broken water fountain. Publish all data and let us track the status of requested fixes in real time.
It would be a fundamental shift and a real indication that Toronto is, in fact, a city that strives for better. Troubleshooting then reported to 311 would suffice. You could call it adequate. But identifying and solving problems before they are reported? This way it looks better.