By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
Imagine waking up one morning to find a geyser shooting off in the street in front of your home. You call the city to let it know there is a broken water main that needs repairs, and, if the pavement has not buckled, you get in your car and head to work.
But as you drive off, you start to realize this could complicate the end of your day – or worse, it could affect you for the rest of the week.
How long will it take the city to start work? How long will the water service be off in my house – and if it is still off when I get home, will I have to spend the night in a hotel? Will I be able to get back into my driveway when I get home tonight? Will the street be shut down for any length of time?
Right now, you might have to call several different departments to get those answers – Public Works should be able to answer your questions about the water service and roadway, but you also might have to call the code department to find out if you can spend the night in the home if the water service is off. But while you’re driving, it might be difficult to call 411 to get those numbers.
Even if you get through, will those departments will be able to answer your questions right away? How many times might you have to call, repeat all the details and ask all the questions again before you get your answers?
That is the solution city leaders want to create with the proposed Elgin 311 Citizen Contact Center. Think of it as something like 911, except it is the one-stop phone shop for nonemergency issues that still carry a sense of urgency for those affected by things like a water main break or a sewer backflow problem.
Several weeks ago, while discussing Elgin’s shift in its reliance toward new media for getting information to residents, City Manager Sean Stegall said much of the city’s ability to work with residents successfully hinges upon clear dialogue.
“You can never communicate enough,” Stegall said on June 22. “I’ve shared this with others, and they’ve agreed with me, that when we make mistakes, or if things don’t go as well as they could have gone, overwhelmingly, the reason is that we did not communicate well enough.”
The proposed Elgin 311 Citizen Contact Center, as envisioned by Stegall and other city leaders, would help improve that dialogue by giving residents one place to call to report issues and to call back for status updates about how the issues are being or have been resolved. Similarly, residents could report issues or request services using text messages, email and even social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Planning for the service began in mid-2009. The goal is for implementation in July 2013.
Officials also hope to revamp the city’s website to make it more user-friendly and even to develop a smartphone app to allow residents to report issues to 311 or check on status updates without actually calling in to talk with someone, Stegall said.
For example, the app would have tabs: One might have city news and information, such as council meeting times and dates; users might tap another tab to report a problem – for example, taking a picture of a pothole and forwarding it to the city with a location. Still another tab might be for making service requests.
“It’s like having City Hall at your fingertips, so to speak,” Stegall said. “So it’s not just for information, but to get service as well.”
The Elgin 311 Citizen Contact Center comes with a price, however, and it is one whose priority has been questioned by some on the City Council, in light of the city’s $4.5 million projected deficit next year and continuing uncertainties about the impact of the state financial crisis on Elgin.
The first five phases of the project will total between $85,580 and $94,580, while the purchase of the actual software, the implementation of it and the technology infrastructure upgrades to accommodate it is estimated between $290,000 and $460,000. That puts the total overall price between $375,580 and $554,580, according to city documentation from the May 11 council meeting.
Despite the concerns voiced by some members at that meeting, the City Council that same evening approved a $36,380 contract with Stern Consulting Inc. to wrap up Phase II and proceed with Phase III of the five-phase project, which includes crafting a request for proposals for a citizen-contact management system – the software that would serve as the center’s backbone.
Stegall told the council then that he believes the expense will be worth it in terms of increased efficiency within city government, increased transparency of city government to its residents, and ultimately in improvement to services to residents.
Leading up to the May 11 City Council meeting, Stegall said the 311 project will bring a fundamental change to the way the city does business and the way it interacts – or communicates with residents.
The concept has been in testing for about a year now – not with a dedicated 311 phone line, but using the usual Public Works Department phone line in conjunction with contact management software that envisions how the 311 system would work. City officials remain optimistic about the system.