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Beta time: Elgin readying 311 center for full-scale unveiling Jan. 13

AndrianHernandez answers call. The city Elgrecently soft opened its 311 center through which most inquiries by resiedent will  eventually

Andriana Hernandez, answers a call. The city of Elgin recently soft opened its 311 center, through which most inquiries by resiedent will eventually will be routed and tracked. Dan Ault has been overseeing the project since 2010 and Colby Basham will be running the day to day ops. Monday, July 22, 2013. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 17, 2014 6:06AM

ELGIN — What’s the 411 on the 311?

According to City Manager Sean Stegall, Elgin’s 311 call center will have its official unveiling Jan. 13 and has been using most of December as a beta testing period for the program for routing inquiries of most non-emergency sorts made to the city.

Stegall said the original plan was to have the center completely up and running Dec. 9. After all the bugs and trouble the federal government has been having launching the Affordable Care Act website, though, Stegall said he wanted to be completely sure Elgin’s 311 program was ready for a full-scale launch.

The goal is to have concerns, complaints and requests routed through the center. The center’s staff then will issue each call a tracking number so the residents involved and the city staffs in question can more efficiently keep tabs on what’s been done and how long it took to do it.

In July, city staff gave The Courier-News an early look at the project, which was getting off the ground by 311 staff fielding public works department-related calls.

The contact center’s director is Colby Basham, who comes to the effort from his post as a superintendent in the public works department. Andriana Hernandez and Elvira Huttner were the first “citizen advocates” to have desks in the 311 center, which is located on the ground floor of city hall downtown and opened in mid-June.

Stegall said two more employees have been transferred from the finance department to 311. A fifth city employee will be heading there soon. An intern will work in the center, too, and two more workers will be transferred later in the year. It has yet to be decided from which department the latter two will come, Stegall said, but their former positions will be filled.

The plan is to add the staff as more departments come into the fold. During 2014, eventually all but the parks and recreation department and 911-type emergency calls will be handled by going through 311.

“But they will still be able to route parks and 911 calls,” Stegall said.

You can call now

In fact, one reason behind having the center is to lessen the load on the city’s 911 system for public-safety emergencies, Stegall said.

Elgin residents can dial 311 now, Stegall said. Its hours currently are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Pending city council approval for staffing, come Jan. 13 the hours could expand to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., then eventually from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. They may also include weekend times.

For other times — or for any time, really — the system is designed to incorporate inquiries from the Web, email and social media. A social media command center is set to be part of the operation.

In late spring or early summer, the city hopes to unveil apps for Apple and Droid phones, through which residents will be able to get a good deal of the information they might be seeking.

Once the system is fully running, when someone contacts the city, that particular issue could be linked to other city matters pending for that person. It also would allow those who handle the request to get quickly up to speed by reading through the electronic files as to the nature of the inquiry and what has been done to that point to address it.

Stegall said research indicates that 50 percent or so of inquiries to any city involve frequently asked questions, such as times for events and billing due dates. These can be handled with relative ease. Another 40 percent require more attention, and the final 10 percent typically require personal professional assistance.

Still, there will be calls that could be either 311 or 911. Examples might be a cat stuck up in a tree or water and/or sewage in a flooded basement. These deal with health, life and safety issues but might not be emergency situations.

Thus, Stegall said, the 311 and 911 staffs will be cross-trained.

City management analyst Dan Ault has been working on the project since 2010, or shortly after Stegall took over as city manager and Stegall noted it was a goal of his tenure to set up such a system.

In summer, both Ault and Basham noted that they’ve learned each department currently has its own way of doing things, from how they field calls to how they might handle someone who might be better served through another office.

What not to do

The process of getting the center off the ground has been a deliberately slow, steady one, Ault said, and involved learning what not to do as well.

Elgin’s 311 center also is a pilot one for the cloud-computing company Salesforce. The city has been using the company’s Chatter, which Ault demonstrated to The Courier-News in advance of a snowstorm in late 2012.

Chatter allows all those logged into an internal network simultaneously to have access to the same information about what’s happening with the weather and in the field. It also has functions similar to Twitter, offering short bursts of information to phones and other devices that link into bigger posts.

Other Salesforce products, including Chatter, are being incorporated into the Elgin 311 mix. And being cloud-based means staff eventually will be able to access residents’ cases remotely through computers and smartphones.

Stegall said 311 software has cost the city about $550,000, with the build-out costing another $150,000 or so. With 311 in place, reports will be generated about how efficiently resident concerns are being handled — and will be available not only to management and the council but to the public, too.

“There will be more accountability,” Stegall said.

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