San Diego callers are left hanging with lousy customer service, and a fix is years away, city report says

San Diego City Hall.
(John Gastaldo)

City auditor calls for a centralized 311 system, but a new Performance & Analytics Department report says combining outdated, poorly staffed call centers won’t solve anything.


San Diego residents frustrated with waiting on hold for hours with questions about city water bills, trash pickup or other issues shouldn’t expect significant improvement anytime soon.

A new city report says San Diego’s customer service systems are so poorly staffed, outdated and disorganized that it would take many years and many millions of dollars to fulfill a longtime city goal of an effective centralized calling system.

San Diego is one of only four cities among the nation’s 20 largest not to have a centralized 311 calling system that enables residents to make any kind of complaint in one place.

In San Diego, emergency calls go to 911. Some callers use the Police Department’s non-emergency line, while others use specific call centers devoted to trash pickup, water and sewer service and other city functions.

The city auditor has repeatedly recommended that San Diego create a centralized 311 system, estimating it could be done quickly with about $3 million in start-up costs and just over $1 million in annual operating costs.

But the city’s Performance & Analytics Department says in a new 32-page report that San Diego’s eight existing call centers are so inefficient that the city needs to slowly build toward a centralized 311 system.

“Taking a handful of broken things and combining them into one thing gives you one big broken thing,” said Kirby Brady, the city’s chief innovation officer.

The report says shifting to a centralized calling system would take more than seven years, 40 new employees and $20 million to $32 million.

In addition to salaries, the money would cover new phone systems, revamped training for customer service workers and dramatic upgrades to the city’s website so many callers could be easily directed to quick online solutions.

“We know that people are waiting on hold for hours possibly before they connect to someone,” Brady told the City Council’s Audit Committee last week. “In many instances, they’re not reaching anyone at all and they’re disconnected.”

Possibly even more concerning is that when a customer reaches someone, the employee is often too poorly trained to help solve the problem, Brady said.

“Taking a handful of broken things and combining them into one thing gives you one big broken thing.”

— Kirby Brady, San Diego chief innovation officer

City Auditor Andy Hanau doesn’t dispute that the city’s customer service system needs vast improvement, but an audit he released last year recommended that San Diego quickly shift to a centralized 311 system.

He emphasized that many cities have had such systems since the 1990s and that only San Diego, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Fla., and Indianapolis lack such systems among the nation’s 20 most populous cities.

Among the 10 largest cities in California, only San Diego, Long Beach and Bakersfield lack 311 systems.

San Diego already has 311 reserved in the local phone system and has paid a fee to keep it reserved for many years, though it hasn’t used it, Hanau said.

He said he doesn’t understand why Performance & Analytics says it will take much longer than expected to create a 311 system and cost several times more than previous estimates.

“The estimated timeline and cost is way longer and way bigger than any of the other cities we benchmarked with,” Hanau told the Audit Committee.

Los Angeles spent $6.5 million creating a 311 system and Sacramento spent $3.5 million. San Francisco spent $19 million, but San Francisco also is a county, so it must include health-related information among its 311 options.

San Diego also could save some or all of the $8.8 million it spends annually operating its eight existing call centers.

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno agreed with Hanau.

“I’m very skeptical of the timeline and the costs,” she told her colleagues on the Audit Committee. “Many cities utilize a 311 system and there’s no reason why we can’t. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Part of the differing perspectives might be the result of Performance & Analytics officials emphasizing the efficiency of boosting digital resources to enable residents to solve problems quickly without placing a phone call.

Brady said high-quality digital services, including chatbots and a much better website, could reduce call volume and free up city customer service workers to deal with residents who actually need to speak to a person to solve their problem.

The city has had the app Get It Done since 2016, but it receives only about 300,000 complaints per year — far fewer than the 1 million total calls per year the city receives at its eight call centers.

Alex Hempton, deputy director of Performance & Analytics, said the city’s digital resources must be easy to use, reliable and gratifying — meaning customers feel their time was respected.

Nearly half the time when someone tries to solve a problem on the city’s website, the person gives up before solving it.

“The idea here is to develop a strategy to provide content that is refined, up-to-date and able to be trusted,” Hempton told the Audit Committee.

The plan laid out by Performance & Analytics would upgrade Get It Done but also make the city website much more able to quickly and easily solve problems like stopping or starting water service or transferring service to a different address.

Hanau said he supports upgrades to the city website and Get It Done but noted that most complaints still come through phone calls.

He said the call center that gets the largest number of calls each year is the police non-emergency line, suggesting it could be much more efficient to have those calls go to a 311 call center.

“Many cities utilize a 311 system and there’s no reason why we can’t. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it.”

— San Diego City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno

Moreno said most people still prefer making phone calls, not digital complaints.

She said relying heavily on digital complaints also could create equity issues because many low-income residents either lack technology or don’t trust it, while many older residents are intimidated by technology.

But Brady noted that the 2020 U.S. Census found that 97 percent of households in the city have at least one smart device.

Matt Vespi, the city’s chief financial officer, said his efforts a few years ago to solve billing problems in the city’s Public Utilities Department convinced him the city must modernize and do a lot of catching up before moving to a 311 system.

“I had the same sticker shock and the same reaction to the length of time,” Vespi said, referring to the Performance & Analytics report. “But we’re really pretty far behind in our customer service. We’re trying to do the structural things to put us in a better place for the long run.” ◆