THE DISTRICT'S CITYWIDE CENTER RECEIVES AN AVERAGE OF ABOUT 2,700 CALLS A DAY. THE FIGURE WAS INCORRECT IN A METRO ARTICLE TUESDAY. (PUBLISHED 07/15/99)
Hidden away on the eighth floor of a Northwest Washington office building is a communications center with a distinctly corporate feel: Twenty-seven operators, each equipped with a state-of-the-art computer system, calmly and politely answer queries, providing callers accurate information with little delay.
This may sound like an unexceptional outfit, but even the people who run the new D.C. government Citywide Call Center are somewhat amazed at just how modern and efficient the District government can be.
"We are, we can and we will continue to make it work," said Kay Phillips, manager of the call center, which is handling about 7,500 calls a day. "We are proving that."
The call center is one of more than a dozen innovations put into place in the first six months of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration, designed to make the public's interaction with the city government less frustrating and less prone to delays.
A separate Department of Human Services multilingual referral service--open 24 hours a day, seven days a week--officially begins operating today. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Office of Tax and Revenue have opened one-stop customer-service centers in modern office buildings.
And new Internet sites allow residents and businesses to file complaints about junk cars or potholes 24 hours a day or apply for certain business and land-use permits without having to visit or call a city office.
Williams (D) is the first to admit that the work has only begun. The challenge, he said, is to ensure that the improvements extend beyond these front-line workers.
"It is kind of like saying you go to the front lobby of the hotel and you get good service, but are you getting good service elsewhere in the hotel?" Williams said.
The city's two new call centers are designed to do far more than offer basic directory assistance. At the Citywide Call Center, for example, operators in the last two months filed 6,199 work orders with city agencies to respond to complaints ranging from illegal dumping to dangerous tree limbs and malfunctioning street lights. The number for the center is 202-727-1000.
The call center computer system keeps track of each complaint and how quickly it is addressed, so the city can say, for example, that 83 percent of the requests for new recycling bins in those two months have been answered, while 46 percent of the requested sidewalk repairs have been made. This information will allow the city to supervise the responsiveness of individual agencies and ask for improvements when the delays extend beyond set standards.
"It is no longer an anecdotal response," said Clayton White, a public works administrator. "We know how well or quickly we are getting the work done."
The Answers Please call center, 202-463-6211 (INFO-211), has a staff of 13 who refer people to government or private-sector agencies--from a database of 1,000 social-service providers--that can answer their needs. Through a contract with AT&T, the attendants can get translation services immediately in 110 languages. Previously, Human Services had two people who relied on handwritten notes and an outdated referral book.
The center officially begins operation today, but it already has been taking calls previously sent to the old service. An 86-year-old woman, for example, reported that she could not afford a prescription drug she needed. The attendant referred the woman to the agency that oversees insurance for the elderly and a private organization that helps the disadvantaged buy prescription drugs.
As with the Citywide Call Center, data are maintained to determine whether the callers receive the requested service. This should allow the city to monitor agencies getting referrals and if necessary budget more money if the providers cannot handle the need, city officials said.
Both call centers still have some bugs to work out. Yesterday, instead of giving a caller the telephone number for a Human Services employee, the Citywide Call Center transferred the person to Answers Please, which then transferred the caller to the Department of Human Services.
And it will be several months before the Answers Please center has a computer system in place that will allow it to base referrals on the location of the caller, automatically sending him or her to the closest provider.
The new customer-service centers operated by Tax and Revenue and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs have won generally positive reviews.
Dan Fitzgerald, 28, a District resident, said he was surprised how quickly he was able to get an income tax refund worked out after a visit yesterday to Tax and Revenue. The new customer-service center assigns numbers to people as they enter, and a dozen clerks are able to keep the wait for service generally to less than 15 minutes.
"People said all the city agencies are a nightmare," Fitzgerald said. "But this was relatively painless."
At Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which left behind a bug-infested headquarters in Chinatown for the new office building it shares with Tax and Revenue at 941 North Capitol St. NE, builders submit applications to a single clerk, instead of having to wait in a series of lines.
"It is a lot less hassle," said Nick Pitsch, who waited about three hours to get structural, electrical, mechanical and plumbing reviews of a renovation project he was about to start, a turnaround he considered acceptable. Agency-wide, according to the city, 95 percent of the building and land regulation permit requests are processed within 40 minutes, but the agency acknowledges that some cases take too long.
Williams said that by the end of the summer, he hopes to have undercover testers out at city agencies to confirm that improvements his department heads have promised have been made.
A list of District government Web sites is available at www.washingtonpost.com/metro
CAPTION: Imogene T. Smith helps a caller at the District's main telephone answering center, where operators take residents' complaints and answer their questions as well as transferring calls to other city offices.