The only thing identifying the nondescript reddish-brown brick building at 205 W. St. Clair Ave. is a small black plaque to the right of the entrance that reads “City of Cleveland.” Thousands of Clevelanders pass by it every day without realizing it’s the nerve center for responding to resident complaints.
On the fourth floor of this address is the city’s 311 call center, which fields an average of 900 calls daily before routing them to city departments. Staffers provide information and take service orders for all manner of city services from waste pickup to speeding to filling potholes. Calls are logged by category in an online system and then prioritized for followup.
“We are here for city services and information,” said 311 call center manager Rick Roscoe. “Folks will call us when they have a question about any city process. We provide general information and we also work as a telephone operator [routing calls] for the city.”
Tracking complaint resolutions
Currently, if a resident files a complaint or makes a request to the city through the 311 center, there is no mechanism to follow up and inform them when the issue has been resolved. The only way a resident will know if their complaint has been handled is to watch for a change to be made.
Yet as Mayor Bibb’s administration moves forward with what it calls “Phase II” of the call center, increased communication with residents will be a focus. One of Bibb’s campaign promises was to create a “modern, responsive, transparent city hall” with an online 311 system that made tracking a complaint as easy as tracking an Amazon package.
When the city was deluged with 15 inches of snow in January, and the 311 system got so buried in calls that residents couldn’t get through, Bibb took to the City of Cleveland’s social media channels to offer a video apology. “I heard your comments, your concerns and your frustrations,” he said in a video. “I’m frustrated too. For too long we’ve neglected to invest in delivering high-quality basic city services.”
Kim Roy Wilson, Cleveland’s commissioner of information technology, told The Land that the center will start working to keep residents informed of the outcome of their request, and that the city wants to launch an app that tracks the entire progress of anything working through the 311 system.
Now, the call center is expected to take on more tasks. One of Mayor Justin Bibb’s major goals is to expand and modernize the center, increasing the number of departments it covers, and improving its ability to serve the public. Wilson said she expects a request for proposals to be released by the administration later this year, but was not able to provide a specific timeline.
Bibb’s administration says it plans to expand the ability of residents to make their own work requests, to better follow up with residents about the results of their request (through either phone calls or a potential phone app), and to further advertise the existence and utility of the call center.
“The technology enhancements that we are looking at by way of Phase II is certainly something that’s being pushed by Mayor Bibb’s administration,” Wilson said. “Closing the loop on responding, on making sure that citizens receive notification — that was paramount to the Mayor’s office when they came in, [along with] enhancing the multichannel system of ways to reach out.”
Working with the public
As part of the 311 center’s next phase, the city plans to do more to promote it, its services, and the 311 number itself, Wilson said. The call center took about 170,000 calls last year and over 185,000 in 2019. (Calls during 2020 were down due to the lockdown, said Roscoe, and are not representative of typical call volume.)
Roscoe oversaw enhancements to the system beginning under Mayor Frank Jackson and continuing into the Bibb administration, such as adopting the Cityworks maintenance management system, through which workers in the call center place and resolve service requests internally. The next step is focused on increasing the usability and public access to the service system.
As of now, a citizen who makes a work request will never receive confirmation of acceptance or completion. They simply have to keep an eye out to see if the work is completed. They can call to follow up, but the onus is on them.
That could change under the new system, Wilson said.
“We are looking to establish a multichannel ability for citizens to create service requests, and then of course closing the loop on creating a service request and ensuring that the citizen gets that notification [of completion],” Wilson said.
That “multichannel” system would include a website and phone app for citizens to use. Roscoe said the hope is to provide citizens with direct access to the service system, allowing them to more easily bring up issues or requests without having to get on the phone.
“It will be no different than any other app,” Wilson said. “Very intuitive, you know, there will be a drop down [menu]. Here is a list of services and you can, anonymously or including your information, type in whatever you need and submit.”
Other cities could serve as examples for Cleveland. Established in 1999, Chicago has one of the oldest 311 systems in the country, and in late December 2018 it underwent a modernization similar to what Cleveland is looking at now. Unlike Cleveland, Chicago already had a public-facing 311 center which advertised its number to residents, but it was also still based on phone calls and traditional work requests.
Then in 2018, the city launched a new version of the system branded “CH 311” which added a new internet portal and phone app so that Chicagoans could use the system without making a phone call. That system includes more than 100 categories for citizens to utilize and a detailed tracking system to allow them to keep track of their request.
Other cities such as New York, San Antonio, Baltimore, and New Orleans have adopted similar online city service portals.
When it opened in 2009, Cleveland’s 311 call center covered only four departments as a “proof of concept,” Wilson said, with a primary focus on the divisions within the Public Works Department.
“Basically we got together with the different departments that are within the city and we wanted to know, ‘What’s your most citizen-facing issue that you have, and why do citizens reach out to you?’” Roscoe said.
The call center’s soft launch ended up lasting 12 years. This meant that while the call center was open and the 311 number was operational, the city didn’t advertise it and the center mostly operated in the background, taking calls for specific departments whose numbers routed to the call center.
At the same time, the Mayor’s Action Center operated alongside the 311 call center, and was used to bring attention to high-priority calls from residents, according to Wilson.
That changed starting in the Jackson administration when the 311 call center began to be announced publicly. When Bibb was elected to office, his administration quietly phased out the Mayor’s Action Center.
The staff of Action Center departed when Jackson left office and the positions were not filled by Bibb. The center was formally phased out in March as part of Bibb’s move to update and streamline the city’s information and reporting systems.
Now he’s looking to ramp up the city’s ability to respond to resident complaints in a timely fashion and residents’ ability to track them.
The call center regularly processes hundreds of calls a day, but when the city of Cleveland sees a major change or event the center’s phones will explode.
For example, when Cleveland was hit by a blizzard in January of this year, the call center was close to being overwhelmed with calls from residents asking about street clearing, public transit, waste removal, and the many other city services impacted by the weather.
The city saw over 3,000 calls over a few days, and slow handling of complaints led to bad publicity for the call center. Roscoe said that publicity led to a further surge in calls for a short time.
On June 13, the call center again saw a surge in calls when the city began a new recycling program. The new program required residents to opt in to have recyclables picked up, a departure from past practice. Roscoe said 1,800 calls poured into the center, making it one of the busiest days of the year.
Typically, the call center is able to keep up. “Our number of call takers aligns with our call volume that we have,” Wilson said. “And [in line with] industry standards, we’re able to make sure that we answer 80% of calls within the first 20 seconds.”
But with the amount of information call takers have to cover, Roscoe says it takes extensive training to get them ready to answer questions quickly.
The five full-time and two temporary employees in the call center serve as the nerve center for much of Cleveland’s city services: they place work orders, offer answers, and accept feedback for over 40 different service areas in a dozen city offices.
The amount and wide variety of topics that call takers need to be knowledgeable about requires extensive training, including traveling to service sites and going on jobs with city workers.
“They go in the community. So they go out to see, how is the work done? How do you do that? Where do you go? And they learn that whole process,” Roscoe said. “If they’re going to [work] with streets, [the Division of Streets] will take them out to a street resurfacing project, and they’ll show them how this project works.”
Roscoe and Wilson said Cleveland will be building on a strong base as it plans 311 improvements because their call takers know more about the functions of Cleveland than anyone else.
“They are the nuts and bolts of how the city operates,” Wilson said.
Update 7/27/2022: Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer has released a report detailing the high volume of request-for-city-service calls that come through her office rather than through the city’s 311 call center. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to multiple inquiries in July 2022 from The Land about progress on planned improvements to the 311 call center.
Keep our local journalism accessible to all
Reader support is crucial as we continue to shed light on underreported neighborhoods in Cleveland. Will you become a monthly member to help us continue to produce news by, for, and with the community?