Don't call them operators. They are "citizen advocates," embodying the city of Elgin's new way of interacting with residents.
Rather than dialing different city departments, residents now can simply dial 311 to be connected to a citizen advocate equipped to handle a multitude of issues, from paying bills to reporting potholes.
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Most importantly, the system is about efficiency and integration of data across departments, allowing all information about each business or residential address to be bundled and accessed by all city staff, said 311 Citizen Services Director Colby Basham.
"The profiles have everything," Basham said. "(Information about) people that are hard of hearing, a dog that bites, if the water was shut off or if there is an open code violation -- it's so that anybody that deals with that household has the information."
The 311 Contact Center launched quietly in January after being in the works for nearly four years.
It operates out of a 2,100-square-foot space on the first floor of city hall from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; weekend hours might be added later, Basham said. Its nine staff members are internal transfers from other departments.
Citizen advocates currently handle calls for public works, engineering, forestry and water billing, and any overflow from community development, Basham said.
Eventually, they will handle all community development calls, as well as calls for the Hemmens Cultural Center, The Centre of Elgin, and parks and recreation, although that will require more staff, Basham said.
On Monday morning, client advocate Kate O'Leary took 28 calls during the first 3½ hours of her shift.
While most calls were about water bills and parking tickets, some were about disparate topics such as qualifying for water meters through the Fox River Water Reclamation District, she said.
"I like it," she said. "It's busy, but you get things done."
When client advocates can't handle a particular request, an internal notification system alerts city staff via email or smartphone alert, or both.
Rather than debuting with a bang, Elgin is rolling out the system gradually, said 311 project manager Dan Ault.
Several more layers of services will be rolled out in phases through 2016, starting with a smartphone app and web portal, likely midsummer upon approval by the city council.
The app will allow residents to pay bills, report potholes and get community updates, and eventually apply for permits and licenses, Ault said.
"We want to take full advantage of what apps can bring today," he said.
The web portal will include detailed public data about the city's performance in various areas, he said. "It will be for everyone to see and access."
Sometime in 2015, a 311 citizen advocate might be stationed in the lobby of city hall to interact with customers in person, or there might even be self-help kiosks, Basham said.
The city purchased the 311 software system from cloud computing company Salesforce.com at a cost of about $600,000 including annual fees through 2016, Ault said.
The goal is to have resolution of any issue 70 to 75 percent of the time after the first call, Basham said. Right now, he guessed that to be about 50 percent. "We don't have enough data yet," he said.
Several cities have 311 systems, including Chicago, Baltimore, Chattanooga, Tenn., and San Jose. New York City has an especially comprehensive system, said Sean Stegall, who spearheaded the initiative after he became city manager in 2009.
Breaking down "siloing" between departments allows services to be more efficient and economical, he said.
"It allows all city employees to be empowered to solve problems well beyond their very specific list of responsibilities," he said.
Stegall said he's looking forward to leveraging the intersection of police and code enforcement through the new system.
"It's about not only stabilizing problems, but preventing them before they exist."