311 Service Center celebrates five years of information communication with residents, businesses

Jeremy Margolis, Reporter

Staffers of the city’s 311 Service Center celebrated the program’s five-year anniversary with a reception Tuesday morning, reflecting on how citywide communication has improved since its inception.

City department directors took turns thanking the eight-member staff and its two supervisors, who are responsible for responding to citizen and business questions, requests and reports ranging from special trash pick-ups to downed trees.

The 311 center has fielded over 678,000 calls since its start, and residents and employees can now also communicate with respondents via text message, a mobile phone app and live chat said Martha Logan, the city’s community engagement manager.

Residents were initially critical of the program because they felt it was a waste of Evanston’s resources, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz said.

The first summer with 311 in service, the city experienced multiple-day power outages following stormy weather, Bobkiewicz said. Electrical company ComEd set up an emergency operations center in Evanston and, through 311, residents were able to better communicate their power issues, he said.

“We were in better shape than most of our neighbor communities because we were able to give ComEd information about where the power was out that other communities could not have,” Bobkiewicz said. “So it was after that stormy summer that people kind of quieted down about 311 and began to realize how powerful a tool it was for our community.”

Since then, the program has expanded to include a list of more than 1,000 frequently asked questions on its webpage.

Center manager Sue Pontarelli and department directors expressed their appreciation for how staffers succeed in uncovering information about an increasingly vast array of inquiries. During the event, she said 311’s staff is thorough and relies on multiple sources to corroborate information.

“They’re such little detectives,” Pontarelli said.

Four members of the staff — Michelle Males, Kimberly Snider, Beverly Otey and Pontarelli — have been part of the program since its beginning. Bobkiewicz credits the program’s success in part to the personal connection the setup of the program allows for, compared with the impersonal nature of searching online for answers to questions.

“When people have a question, they have someone to call,” Bobkiewicz said. “We may not have an answer, we may not be able to give them all the information they want, but they are going to be able to get more information from us than they would without having 311.”

Right now, the program is piloting a partnership with Open Communities, a fair housing agency based in Chicago’s northern suburbs.

“If you’re in need of housing or some assistance with housing, you can call 311 and we fill out a service request and it’s generated and sent directly to Open Communities,” Pontarelli told The Daily.

In the coming months, the center also hopes to incorporate information about social services for children and aging individuals, Pontarelli said.

As he anticipates the continued regular use of the 311 Center’s services, Bobkiewicz reminisced about the program’s launch, which came exactly at 3:11 p.m. on March 1, 2011. He said the program has grown to become an important part of the Evanston community.

“311 really has become a backbone of what we do and how we serve the residents,” he said. “I think I can say as we sit here five years after it started, it’s been an unqualified success.”

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