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The City of Evanston’s 311 program is a behind-the-scenes workhorse that cuts through a lot of red tape across all city departments.
The woman who helped create and launch Evanston’s 311 program 11 years ago is Sue Pontarelli, the 311 Police Service Desk Manager at the Evanston Police Department.
Anyone who has ever called, texted or chatted with the 311 team to ask about the cause of a siren, request a real estate transfer stamp, report a malfunctioning stoplight or address any of hundreds of other topics has benefitted from Pontarelli’s leadership.
In Evanston, 311 calls are either answered or go to voice mail; there are no complicated instructions (called phone trees) that direct the caller to “press 1” for this and “press 2” for that.
“I am not a fan of phone trees, It definitely does not send the right customer service message,” Pontarelli said. “It is important for customers to talk directly with our amazing 311 team during business hours without having to press a million prompts.”
The 311 team, staffed by six civilians, responds to calls from an office within the Police Department building – although because of the pandemic, at present the staff alternates between working on site or remotely from home.
Since going live on March 1, 2011 (3/11 – get it?), this group has responded to 1.5 million calls, more than 325,000 service requests and more than 25,000 chats and texts, Pontarelli said.
The pandemic changed the team’s work in many ways, both in the nature of the queries and the technology used to respond to them.
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Pontarelli realized the technology used at the time would not be able to accommodate a remote workforce. She said within four days, the EPD’s information technology and 311 teams pulled together and purchased a new system, had it installed, learned how to use it and implemented a fully remote service.
The transition was none too soon. Calls to 311 increased 35% during the pandemic, Pontarelli said, many of them related to changing COVID-19 restrictions, vaccine availability and remote service accessibility. Pontarelli expanded the group’s hours and worked with department heads throughout city government to keep ahead of new and pressing issues. The team responded to more than 190,000 calls last year.
Another COVID initiative was the establishment of the Evanston Care Network in 2020. The 311 team, the Evanston Public Library, the Evanston Community Foundation and Amita Health worked together to launch the network as a “one-stop shop” resource. Evanstonians search by ZIP code to find free or low-cost access to services such as child care, unemployment assistance, job training, food and housing.
Someone is available to respond to 311 queries from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Assistance in Spanish is also available. For every 311 call, the team tries to resolve the issue with “first contact resolution,” no second call needed – and team members meet that goal more than half the time.
Queries not resolved during the first contact are routed to the correct department for answers. Training to become a service desk officer typically takes eight to 12 weeks, and each team member is cross-trained to respond using all three media: phone, text and chat.
Pontarelli said one member of the 311 team, Assistant Supervisor Yvette Hopson, has an innate ability to de-escalate almost any situation. Hopson handles a large portion of daily operations for 311 and was instrumental in setting up the procedures for working remotely.
In addition to 311, Pontarelli also oversees the police service desk, the jail, the overall building facility, most non-emergency requests, the animal warden, and so-called “walk ins,” i.e. visits from people who come through the doors of the Police Department.
According to Pontarelli, service is at the core of everything the 311 team does, an assessment her colleague, police Commander Ryan Glew, agrees with wholeheartedly. “Sue and her team, largely working behind the scenes, are an essential part of good customer service delivered to the City of Evanston,” Glew said.
The support for creating Evanston’s 311 service began in April 2010, eight months after Wally Bobkiewicz started in his role as City Manager. Bobkiewicz’s vision was to implement a 311 system and he worked with then-Chief Richard Eddington to meet a March 1, 2011, implementation date. At the time, Pontarelli was the supervisor of the police service desk and got assigned to the project. She and Joe McRae, one of Bobkiewicz’s associates, were tasked with designing, implementing, training and activating the new 311 system.
Working together, Pontarelli and McRae conducted benchmarking research to determine the pros and cons for the technology available and develop a list of “must-have” features. They contacted counterparts at other Midwest cities and visited several to see those 311 operations in action.
Once the recommended technology had been presented, approved and purchased, the next priority was building and organizing the repository of information for every area within city government. Pontarelli met with every department head and asked them to provide her with a list of their 10 most frequently asked topics. She converted those topics into service requests and procedures. Currently 311 team members have more than 250 request types that they respond to and process.
The phone number the city reserved for the system, 847-448-4311, works anywhere in the country. Within Evanston city boundaries one need only dial 311 to be connected. In order to make this feature work consistently, every phone company had to be contacted so they could support Evanston’s dedicated phone number. By the March 2011 target launch date, the system was ready to begin handling calls. Each week another department was folded into the 311 system until there was 100% participation and the system was fully operational.
One example of how the 311 system increases efficiency relates to the real estate transfer stamp, Pontarelli said. The old procedure used to require multiple phone calls and requests from many different city departments. Working with all of the city departments and the Collector’s Office, the process was streamlined and all the data was consolidated electronically into a 311 service request.
To keep ahead of trends and current needs, Pontarelli periodically meets with each department head. During in-service training days, the team concentrates on refreshing their skills and learning about new procedures and ordinances that may affect the answers they provide. Pontarelli makes sure they are kept informed about key personnel changes and breaking news.
Pontarelli has been working with law enforcement as a civilian in some capacity since 1984. She studied law enforcement at Oakton College and spent four years as a 911 dispatcher in Deerfield. In those early days, her primary career was as a flight attendant for American Airlines. She eventually took on an instructor role, teaching the recertification classes all flight attendants are required by the FAA to take each year. Her flight schedule also accommodated part-time jobs, one of which was as a police service desk officer at EPD.
After a 25-year career with American, she retired and switched to full-time at EPD. She said she loves the camaraderie at EPD and couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.