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Council reacts to 311 system

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Denton City Council members had mixed reactions, from disappointment to the cautious embrace of a proposed rollout of a $2.9 million “citizen relationship management” system during the next five years. 

A task force comprised of a dozen city staff members met for three months after some on the City Council, including the mayor and mayor pro tem, asked the staff to improve customer service. 

Ethan Cox, customer service manager for the city’s utility departments, presented the group’s findings to the City Council last week. The same report was provided to the council’s Committee on Citizen Engagement last month. 

Large cities are complex organizations and it can be difficult for residents to know who to call about an issue, Cox told the council. What’s more, staff members who get the initial call may not know themselves which is the right department to refer if the resident has reached the wrong department. Last year, the city staff took more than 1.7 million outside calls, although not all were service calls, such as reporting a pothole or stray animal, Cox said. 

The task force recommended a “concierge” model of service, whereby an agent in the call center takes all the information a resident relays in the first call. The agent would steer the issue to the proper department for resolution and call the resident back when the matter was resolved, or to provide an update. The city would need to hire and train eight people to serve as customer service agents in the call center, according to the task force. 

Cox told the council that the task force wasn’t sure setting up 311 was necessary in the beginning. Some cities have launched 311 without giving the customer service agents the tools to follow through, he said. 

Mayor Mark Burroughs acknowledged that he had been among those elected officials who had pressed for better customer service. But he said he was disappointed at the need for more people and another software package, calling it a massive investment and an additional layer of bureaucracy. 

He was also concerned that the city could start the program and decide, after significant investment, that it doesn’t work. One key recommendation of the task force calls for merging the new customer service software with software city departments currently use to manage their work flow.

In the first year, the system would cost about $480,000, half of which would be spent to launch the software. 

Case studies provided to the City Council showed that Savannah, Ga., which is about the same size as Denton, launched a 311 system three years ago with a database designed by the city’s technology division for $309,082. The call center started with four employees and later brought in two employees from the technology help desk after they were cross-trained. 

A similar program in Durham, N.C., — pop. 217,000 — cost $642,000 to roll out in 2004, with new software and 12 new hires. 

Council member Dalton Gregory said he wondered whether the city might see savings in personnel time, as departments found they didn’t have to answer the phone as much. But Cox said the task force didn’t see that potential, cautioning that calls could even increase once residents realized there was an easier way to report problems. 

Council member Kevin Roden said that city leaders wouldn’t likely question now what savings might come from the city’s website, even though the question might have occurred to them when its launch was first considered. 

“It’s about better relating between the government and its citizens,” Roden said. 

“That said, I agree it’s an expensive project,” he added. 

Cox told the council that the program was not among those included in the supplemental package for the 2013-14 budget. In other words, the City Council would have to add the project during its budget deliberations in order for the proposal to move forward. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.