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Online Message System Links City, Residents

Andy Reid
January 11, 2004
Tampa Tribune

TAMPA - From fielding pothole complaints to finding someone to fix them, city officials have tapped the power of computers to improve communication with constituents.

A new "message center'' accessed through Tampa's Web site allows users to ask questions or file complaints 24 hours a day. People can track their inquiries to see which city officials respond and how fast.

In addition, the city has started using e-mail to alert companies about city projects up for bid. The city expects the e-mail notices to save money on mailings and end up involving more prospective bidders, which could drive down costs.

"That is part of our goal of increasing accountability,'' said Darrell Smith, the mayor's chief of staff. "We want to develop new ways in which we can address constituent concerns.''

The city developed the program in-house, and it didn't require new software to implement, Smith said.

The message center is designed so it can be used by people who have a question or complaint but don't know which of the many city departments to contact.

To access the message center, users can go to www.tampagov.net and click on "email'' at the top of the screen.

A menu appears showing categories such as complaints, requests for service and information about city codes.

Users pick a category and fill out an online form, which gets routed to the appropriate city department.

Inquiries are assigned tracking numbers. Users can send messages to city employees working on the inquiry and see the messages sent among those responding.

The city aims for same-day responses. The time to resolve issues varies based on the inquiry.

For example, someone reporting a pothole might get a message that an inspector was sent to check the road damage. Another message would come when the city ordered the repairs, followed by notification that the work was completed.

"It's really kind of seamless to the citizen,'' said Diane Jamai, city operations improvement coordinator. "We don't have to pass them to someone else. ... We are working it together.''

On the e-mail front, the city hopes to cut down on mailings by asking its suppliers to subscribe to DemandStar, a network linking government agencies nationwide.

Until now, when the city wanted to put a project out to bid, it mailed postcard notices to companies registered on its supplier list.

Interested businesses notified the city, which would mail bid applications ranging from five to 100 pages.

DemandStar's services are supposed to let the city notify prospective bidders by e-mail or fax. Those interested can download applications and mail them to the city.

Under the postcard notification system, the city charges companies $25 annually to register to receive mailed bid notices.

DemandStar's yearly costs start at about $20. The company charges higher subscription rates for companies that want to receive notification about government projects throughout the region, said Gregory Spearman, the city purchasing director.

Working with DemandStar doesn't cost the city anything and should save the city money on paper and postage costs, Spearman said.

Reporter Andy Reid can be reached at (813) 259-8409.