Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!
Come rain, snow, sleet, and pandemics, Evanston 311 is here for you.
Evanston 311 turns ten years-old today.
Since launching on March 1, 2011, the City’s customer service system has fielded 1.4 million phone calls, text messages and emails, according to Sue Pontarelli, 311 Service Desk Manager.
Questions, comments and requests for help accessing City services grew from 105,000 in 2011 to 160,000 in 2020. The volume of calls and messages increased sharply in 2020, up 38%, driven by the pandemic.
Inquiries during the early days and weeks of the pandemic focused on rules related to the various phases of the lockdown, said Ms. Pontarelli. More recent COVID-19 calls have been “strictly vaccine related,” attributable in part to Evanston’s having its own Public Health Department, she believes.
Top service requests, in addition to learning where residents can get a dose of the vaccine, are for missed garbage and recycling pick-ups and weather-related issues, such as snow removal and parking restrictions.
Text and live chat were rolled out in 2014, but most requests still come via telephone today.
Some calls are re-routed to the police non-emergency phone line – lost items, complaints about noise or parking – or to 911 for life-and-death emergencies. Emergency calls are rare, accounting for less than 5% of all 311 calls, stated Ms. Pontarelli. However staff is trained to ask for an address before transferring emergency calls.
Unlike calls to the police non-emergency phone line, calls to 311 are anonymous. This way, residents can report violations of property regulations, such as a neighbor’s un-shoveled sidewalk, and remain unnamed, observed one service desk worker, who wished to remain anonymous.
Veteran service desk officer Beverly Otey, pictured above, notes the occasional call about the Evanston rodeo, meant for Evanston, Wyo., or how to dispute a parking ticket in Evanston, Ohio. The most unusual call?
A resident searching for someone to perform an exorcism of the spirits living in her home. Ms. Otey explained that the City does not perform exorcisms, and suggested contacting a local church.
Evanston 311 was the vision of former city manager Wally Bobkiewicz and was created to replace the prior, time-worn, and inefficient system of residents’ trying to reach City departments. At a press conference held at 3:11 p.m. on March 1, 2011 (3/1/11), Mr. Bobkiewicz welcomed members of the media to the call center, located in fire/police headquarters, 1454 Elwood Ave./909 Lake St.
“What used to happen, people would have to figure out which city department to call to answer their question or solve their problem. They would call, get voicemail and have to leave a message because workers were usually out doing their jobs,” Ms. Pontarelli explained. Bouts of telephone tag ensued. It might take several days to resolve an issue or get an answer.
Ms. Pontarelli and Ms. Otey have both worked with 311 since the beginning.
“It’s my baby,” explains Ms. Pontarelli. She is pleased with how 311 has streamlined the customer service function, facilitating easier access to city services for residents and increasing accountability of City employees.
People initially did not understand the new system, said Ms. Otey, but now appreciate that “311 is the first line to get one’s question answered.” She added, “Hopefully, people feel that they are listened to and that their issue, question or comment is being replayed to the appropriate person.”
The improved turnaround time to answer residents’ questions and resolve issues comes at a cost. The budget for 311 was $624,000 in 2020. The annual budget increased at a compound annual growth rate of 3.8% since 2012 – the first full year of operation – double the Consumer Price Index of 1.8% annually, during the period.
Evanston 311 has eight service desk officers, a supervisor and an assistant supervisor. Staff turnover, until recently, was very low. The average tenure is five years, reports Ms. Pontarelli.
“It is tough to be on the phone eight hours a day, “she noted.
Evanston 311 service desk operates Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Help is available by phone: 311 or, for those calling from Evanston, Wyo., etc. (847) 448-4311 – text or on-line chat. Telecommunications relay services are available for people with hearing or speech disabilities, by dialing 711.
This post was updated with additional information, including 311 annual budget data on Feb. 28.