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Service keeps City Hall on track

An online "message center" lets citizens follow their complaints as they move through Tampa's e-mail system.

David Karp, Times Staff Writer
October 19, 2003
St. Petersburg Times

At 11:34 p.m., Rich Kerin wanted to reach his government.  No one would be answering the phones at City Hall at that hour. But Kerin could warm up his PC.  At that moment, the Hyde Park computer programmer took the latest invention of Mayor Pam Iorio's administration for a spin.

A new "message center" system allows citizens to track what happens when they contact City Hall.  "It has the potential to be a really great system because it has accountability," said Darrell Smith, the mayor's chief of staff.

The system works by tracking every call and e-mail into City Hall. Anyone - a complaining citizen, a curious reporter or the mayor herself - can find out how long it took for a staff member to read an e-mail and act on it.

On average, it's taking 1 day, 21 hours and 55 minutes for the city staff to read e-mails. It's taking an average of 11 days, 9 hours and 54 minutes for the city staff to finish work on a citizen's complaint.

Of course, an e-mail from the mayor gets attention much faster than an ordinary e-mail. Her complaints get finished in average of 2 days and 10 hours. The mayor is slightly faster with her e-mail. On average, takes Iorio 23 hours and 43 minutes to read e-mails.

Here's how it works:

A citizen logs onto the city's Web site, www.tampagov.net and clicks on the e-mail link. The system provides easy-to-understand options.

Want to make an anonymous crime tip?

Want to report a bunch of junk and trash?

Want to say your utility bill is too high?

Once an e-mail is sent, the system responds with a tracking number. The tracking number allows the citizen to see who has read the e-mail and what they've done with it.

Employees who take phone calls are supposed to enter calls into the message center, allowing supervisors to see how fast they've acted. They no longer just fill out pieces of paper, which move from desk to desk to trash can.

Iorio also printed out scores of pads for employees to carry with them. The pads say "Action Request" in large letters, with red type to underscore "Urgent." When employees are driving in their cars or walking around town, they're supposed to fill out the forms if they see potholes or graffiti at a city park. They then enter the forms into the message center.

"I see a shift in the way the city responds to citizen requests," Smith said.

When Iorio took office, one of her priorities was to make the bureaucracy more nimble. She wanted city departments to act fast and solve problems. As supervisor of elections, Iorio took the same approach. She put candidate campaign finance reports online and created a "candidate room" where people could pull reports and access files.

The city hasn't advertised the message center prominently, because staff members still are working out the kinks. A formal launch should happen in January. Nonetheless, the city has received about 2,815 e-mails since February. About 960 of those came this month. The complaints range the gambit.

Saul Richardson, jazz director of North Sydney Boys' High School in Australia, wanted to know whether his band could perform in Tampa during a tour of the United States. He sent his inquiry at 11:46 p.m. EST Oct. 6.

His e-mail was read by a special events coordinator in the parks department at 8:13 a.m. the next day. She wrote back at 9:13 a.m. He read her response at 9:06 p.m.

"Thank you for your interest and quick response!" he wrote back, at 12:06 p.m. two days later.

The city staff wrote him back 8 minutes later at 12:14 p.m.: "This is great!"

The band plans to perform from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 10 during an antique car show at Lykes Gaslight Park downtown.

Richardson said in an e-mail that he was pleased by the fast response. He tracked the message each step of the way.

"I have never seen anything similar," he said.

Other e-mails have included attachments.

An east Tampa resident e-mailed police on Tuesday with a video he shot and downloaded to his computer that showed people putting false tags on cars and driving off. A police captain read the message at 8:01 a.m. Wednesday.

Other residents have asked for extensions to pay utility bills, reported code violations and offered to donate works to the Tampa Museum of Art.

Of course, the system only works if staff members read and act on the e-mails.

Kerin sent in his e-mail at 11:34 p.m. Tuesday, eager to become a docent at the art museum. The museum's public information officer read it at 1:19 p.m. Thursday. She passed the e-mail to another staff member, who read it at 1:56 p.m.

At 5:32 p.m. Friday, Kerin's voice sounded strained.  "I am looking to volunteer there, which makes it a little bit frustrating since I am going to be giving my time to them and I still haven't heard back," he said.

- David Karp can be reached at 813-226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com

Watching government go

Number of messages sent to city message center since February: 2,610
Number of messages sent between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the busiest hours: 414
Number of messages sent between midnight and 6 a.m.: 90
Number of messages sent on Wednesday, the busiest day: 494
Number of messages sent on Sunday: 205
Percentage of messages read and resolved: 54
Average duration of messages that are not yet resolved: 24 days, 7 hours, 25 minutes
Number of message acted on by city employees between midnight and 6 a.m.: 256
Number of messages acted on by city employees between 5 p.m. and midnight: 1,294
Average time until messages are read: 1 day, 21 hours, 55 minutes
Average time of messages that still aren't read: 7 days, 4 hours, 28 minutes
Average time until Mayor Pam Iorio reads her messages or refers them to staff: 23 hours, 43 minutes
Data current as of 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Copyright St. Petersburg Times 2003