City's help on services a call away

Expanded 311 system to run 24 hours a day

March 28, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

For many, calling Baltimore City government, or any government for that matter, was one of those dreaded chores.

You knew you'd be put on hold. You'd be passed from one operator to another. You'd end up with someone who turned your simple request into a federal case. And in the end, you might not get any help.

But Baltimore officials are hoping to change all that and today will announce that the city's One Call Center is up and running, ready to handle calls for everything from replacing street lamps to removing abandoned vehicles.

Rather than calling a specific city agency with a complaint, citizens can dial 311 -- "Your call to City Hall." The 311 concept has been used for years as the phone number for nonemergency police calls but has been expanded to handle all types of complaints.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he hopes the center will improve the handling of calls, as has been the case with a similar program in Chicago.

The idea for bringing the call center to city government came from the late Jack Maple, a former New York City police official who developed that city's Compstat program to track crime -- an effort adopted by Baltimore.

The task of getting the 311 program up and running here fell to Elliot H. Schlanger, chief information officer in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology.

"Prior to this center, if you had an issue with sanitation, or health, you couldn't talk to somebody after 4:30 in the afternoon," Schlanger said. "Now, we have the capacity to take calls 24 hours a day."

Tracking each call

Under the new system, once a call has been received, the caller gets a tracking number for future reference. The request for service is sent through the city's computer system to the proper agency, and the CitiTrack system keeps note of the calls and their disposition.

CitiTrack will be evaluated every two weeks by the CitiStat system, a program developed from Maple's Compstat system and hailed nationwide as a model for tracking government efficiency.

O'Malley said he wants the tracking system to become one more tool for managers to keep abreast of where resources are needed and how quickly their staffs are responding to calls.

The city spent about $2.6 million developing the system, which should cost about $4 million a year to operate. The Texas cities of Houston, Dallas and Austin, and San Jose, Calif., are other major cities with this system.

About 40 telephone operators are on hand in Baltimore's center, which is on the fourth floor of police headquarters. Many were transferred from the Department of Public Works. All received training in phone courtesy, handling customer service calls and using a computer system that has 270 categories for citizen complaints, officials said.

City officials expect to add 15 more operators as the volume of calls increases during the next few months.

The call center is filled with work stations for the telephone operators. Digital signs along two walls track incoming calls and how long callers have to wait before being answered.

A consultant who reviewed the city's old system estimated that the equivalent of 125 full-time employees were fielding calls throughout city government, Schlanger said. The call center will have many fewer employees doing the same job.

"From that perspective, we will save the difference in cost," Schlanger said.

Not always an easy fix

Though O'Malley vowed quick action on all calls, he cautioned that city officials won't be able to resolve problems on private property as quickly as those on public property.

"One of our biggest service complaints is for cleaning up trash that is on private properties. That is not something that lends itself to an easy, quick fix," said O'Malley. "We can do it, but it does involve issuing a citation."

City officials hope to expand the program this summer.

"The best advertisement for 311 is making it work," O'Malley said, "and that's what we aim to do."

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