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Customer service at Winnipeg city hall should be a priority for our new mayor

So far, coverage of this year’s mayoral campaign has been dominated by promises to sell city assets, pledges of accountability and transparency, proposals for tax changes, and social media posts that range from racist to vacuous.

But last week, Paula Havixbeck hit upon the one issue that has the potential to make the biggest difference in how citizens view their civic government: Customer service.

It might seem like a simple concept, but building a customer service culture at city hall is key to fixing our infrastructure, ensuring fair tax levels, providing quality recreation options and improving citizen satisfaction.

When thousands of Winnipeggers had their water pipes freeze last winter, many people said it was an infrastructure problem, while council called it a natural disaster. But in reality, it was a complete customer service failure.

The city failed to identify the problem soon enough, failed to notify homeowners about what they could do to prevent freezing, failed to acquire enough equipment and manpower to thaw pipes, and failed to provide affected homeowners with the help they needed in a timely manner.

Sometimes it seems like city hall is the only place in town where it’s harder to get help than at the downtown Bay.

Havixbeck wants to fix that by starting with improvements to 311. She has proposed reorganizing the service so that callers have a single agent manage their case from start to finish, instead of dealing with multiple representatives.

Since 311 is the city’s primary customer service tool, it makes sense to start there. But a more comprehensive approach is needed if there’s going to be a big shift toward a “citizen first” strategy.

Every city employee, not just 311 reps, should undergo customer-service training to learn how they can better serve the public and work more co-operatively with colleagues in other departments to solve problems.

The city should appoint a senior administrator, a Chief Service Officer, to be in charge of 311 and improving customer-care standards across all areas of the organization.

The city’s website needs to be overhauled to ensure customer needs are put ahead of political communication, and that information is easy to find (hopefully reducing the volume of 311 calls).

And councillors themselves need to realize that placing the concerns of citizens ahead of their own political legacies will ultimately make it a lot easier to be re-elected.

If Winnipeggers feel like they’re well-informed and that city departments are sincerely trying to fix problems as quickly as possible, they’ll have a lot more patience for the difficult decisions council needs to make going forward.

Havixbeck deserves credit for starting the conversation; now let’s hope we’re not left on hold waiting for other candidates to share their plans for better service.