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Posted on Sun. Dec. 09, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Call center has winning numbers

5 years in, 311 becomes go-to info line for city services

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At a glance

Fort Wayne’s 311 system has seen a significant increase in call volumes:






Source: City of Fort Wayne

FORT WAYNE — It used to be that if you had an issue with the city – missed garbage pickup, a water main is fountaining in your yard – trying to figure out whom to call wasn’t easy.

Do you call the water filtration plant for the water main? Or maybe City Utilities? Many calls went to the neighborhood liaisons in the mayor’s office, who would then route them to the proper department, who would then – hopefully – route them to the proper people to address the issue.

Many calls went to residents’ neighborhood associations or even City Council members, which added yet another layer to the process.

Then in early 2007, the city launched its 311 call center, with six people taking calls for three departments.

Five years later, those original six call takers are still there, plus two more, and the group now handles 22 city departments and is projected to handle more than 180,000 calls this year.

“The system is seamless because that one call takes care of it,” said Julie Sanchez, the city’s director of citizen services. “Either we know the answer or it’s one transfer (for the caller).”

And not only do they know the answer, but the call takers actually start the city’s response to the call, whether it’s issuing an order for a streetlight replacement directly to a crew on the street or directing National Serv-All to empty a missed recycling bin.

Susan Cable said 311 operations make a complicated, multifaceted agency accessible to the rest of us. Cable is a strategic adviser to the Public Technology Institute in Alexandria, Va., and manager for its Citizen-Engaged Communities and Web 2.0 State and Local Government Award programs, which set national standards and issue awards for government applications such as 311.

She is also founder and president of eServices Consulting, which provides technical services to government agencies on 311 call centers.

“Some cities have their garbage collection under solid waste services. In some cities, animal control is under the health department or the police department, so it’s very difficult to figure out who to call,” Cable said.

“The call center is the face of government in today’s world.”

Fort Wayne has focused on making that face friendly, Sanchez said.

During the June windstorm, thousands of calls for help came in to 311 in just a matter of hours. Call takers stayed late to deal with the volume, then volunteered to come in Saturday to take more and handle the 700 voice mails that were left.

“People were surprised to hear us say, ‘We’re 311, we’re calling about your tree,’ ” Sanchez said.

Cable said that’s the sign of a call center that wants to be responsive.

“They sometimes get beat up for the sake of the departments, but because they’re there and being responsive, it really does make a difference to people,” Cable said. “If you call, you’re not thinking, ‘I’m talking to this individual,’ it’s just ‘the city’ or ‘the county.’ ”

But 311 centers – originally started in the late 1990s to remove non-emergency call traffic from 911 call centers – now have another function entirely: as performance management tools.

By tracking every call and seeing how – and how fast – it is handled, officials can not only see where to put resources but can also identify breakdowns in the system.

“We’re taking this data and using it to monitor performance,” Sanchez said. “It helps drive city services.”

Director of Public Works Bob Kennedy said the system lets departments immediately see where performance goals aren’t being met and why. The information that previously would have been difficult or impossible to obtain is now available almost in real time.

“It’s a huge positive,” Kennedy said. “You can look at the dashboard across all the divisions in the city and immediately see where there’s red flags.”

Cable said that is especially important in an era when residents want government to cost less but are not willing to give up services.

“That is so critical today, when most cities and counties have significant budget constraints,” she said. “It’s the difference in when you get 40 complaints about sewer backups. Are those 20 calls each from the same two people? Or 40 different people? Are they all in the same geographic area? It lets you prioritize your response.”

Mayoral spokesman John Perlich said the system is allowing city staff to get more done.

“You can see where the phone calls are coming from and then use that to make process improvements,” he said. “It also frees up time and resources in the departments (who don’t have to handle calls anymore). It’s all about helping us do a better job.”

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