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Time to revisit city service idea

We were impressed to learn that a request of Denton city staff to improve customer service resulted in three months of meetings by a task force comprised of a dozen staff members.

Surely, such a response to the request — which came from officials including the mayor and mayor pro tem — would yield meaningful results.

But City Council members had mixed reactions to the group’s findings — the proposed rollout of a $2.9 million “citizen relationship management system” during the next five years — and we can understand why.

What happened to such basic, cost-effective ideas as, say, working harder or improving one’s organizational skills? We can remember a time when institutions honed their effectiveness by cross training and encouraging staff members at all levels to take responsibility and show initiative.

Guess those ideas are considered old-fashioned in today’s high-tech world.

We realize that we may be over-simplifying, but it seems to us that someone involved in this three-month discussion might have come up with a few constructive solutions that didn’t require spending nearly $3 million.

Ethan Cox, customer service manager for the city’s utility departments, presented the group’s findings to the City Council last week.

Large cities are complex organizations and it can be difficult for residents to know who to call about an issue, Cox said. What’s more, staff members who get the initial call may not know 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, 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 who had pressed for better customer service but 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.

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 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.”

It is expensive, and in our view, officials should not invest that kind of money without trying a few other solutions first. We’d suggest sending the task force back to the drawing board — and this time include a few taxpayers to provide input.

That could be a great way to build better relations between the government and residents — for a lot less money.