County executive sets tone when answering switchboard

Owens assesses need for human operators

April 24, 2001|By Alyson Harkins | Alyson Harkins,SUN STAFF

County Executive Janet S. Owens spent an hour yesterday morning with her ear to the door of her bureaucracy - answering telephones at the county switchboard.

Taking on none of the outrageousness of comedian Lily Tomlin's "Ernestine" the operator, Owens fielded more than a dozen calls, most of them with the greeting, "Good morning, Anne Arundel County. How may I help you?"

But as she grew more comfortable, Owens abandoned that approach and answered, "This is the county executive. May I help you?"

One stunned caller, apparently believing he had accidentally dialed the county executive's direct line, mumbled an apology before Owens connected him to the appropriate extension.

Her visit to the telecommunications office was inspired by a recent meeting she held about the county budget, in which the idea of automating the switchboard to save money was raised.

Owens said yesterday that she was resistant to the idea but wanted to learn more about the kinds of calls the switchboard handles, and which problems the public calls about. "I decided that I needed to find out about this place for myself."

She arrived at 10 a.m. sharp, and quickly learned that calls arrive at the switchboard - 410-222-7000 - on just about any topic, from soil conservation to baby-sitting classes. One caller simply wanted to talk to Louise, whoever that is.

Owens patiently prodded for more information: "Do you know her last name or department?" Eventually Owens connected the caller to an extension - although whether it was the right one no one could say.

"Why would somebody call here for the Circuit Court in Towson?" Owens mused after another call.

The walls of the two cubicles where the bulk of the telephone calls are answered are covered with phone numbers and extensions for almost any question that might arise. Each desk has a monitor with all county phone numbers at the touch of a button. However, the system is aging, and technical problems arise frequently.

"I'm frozen," said regular county operator Nellie Walston, pointing to her monitor screen and thumbing through a booklet of county extensions.

Because many calls are unrelated to Anne Arundel County government, the operators keep various sources of information at hand. "We always try to give them an answer," said Mary Cheek, another regular.

Walston added, "Usually we can at least direct them to someone who can help, but we're just people - not magicians."

Nor, for that matter, county executives.

Walston said that unusual calls require creative thinking - such as one she received shortly before Owens arrived, from a county resident who wanted to know where to purchase beach sand for a new business. She directed the caller to the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

The county has three full-timers who answer the phones, handling an estimated 40,000 calls annually on 16 lines - including local lines for calls from the Washington area (301-970-8250) and South County (410-867-2027).

Owens' view about keeping a human presence at the switchboard was only strengthened by her hour as an operator, she said: "We want real people to answer our citizens' calls."

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