City Government and Greg Ballard and Local Government and Government

Mayor's Action Center might be privatized to cure chronic woes

August 11, 2008

Maybe it's a stray dog rooting through your garbage. Perhaps someone has abandoned a car amid the potholes riddling your street. Either way, Indianapolis offers a one-stop shop for irate residents to complain. Just dial the Mayor's Action Center at 327-4MAC.

Then get ready to wait. And wait. So long, in fact, that close to half of the MAC's callers hang up in frustration.

"The Mayor's Action Center is a wonderful idea that has never been well-executed," said Cathy Burton, president of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations. "It has a long history of poor results."

Mayor Greg Ballard has targeted the MAC for an overhaul. In December, his transition team quickly flagged it as troubled. Since then, Ballard's staff has held three public meetings to analyze the MAC's performance and investigate improvements.

Now Ballard is turning to business for help. Late last month, he published a "Request for Information" seeking input on best practices from call center firms. It's the first step toward a more formalized process that could lead to full privatization of the MAC.

Public records about the MAC paint a bleak picture. It was launched under Mayor Steve Goldsmith in the early 1990s. Today, it operates on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:25 p.m. It receives more than 220,000 inquiries annually, resulting in more than 86,000 requests for city services.

The MAC is now operating with 11-1/2 full-time-equivalent employees and an $865,000 annual budget, said Sarah Taylor, Ballard's director of constituent services. According to documents produced in December by Ballard's transition team, it had a $1.6 million budget under Mayor Bart Peterson.

Ballard spokesman Marcus Barlow said that when the new mayor took office, he ordered an immediate 20-percent reduction in the MAC's budget to help reduce a deficit his administration inherited. He said the MAC has since reduced costs further by not replacing employees who left.

Exasperated callers

The MAC posted its worst recent performance in June 2007, according to its records, when 50 percent of calls were abandoned. Under Ballard, 35 percent to 40 percent of callers still hang up.

According to MAC records, in its worst month last year, callers waited an average of four minutes for an answer. For three months this spring, the wait averaged three minutes.

The MAC's targeted response time: about 45 seconds.

"It's not just about answering the call more quickly," said Michael Huber, Ballard's director of enterprise development. "It's fulfilling the service more quickly, closing the loop and communicating it back to the citizen."

But in its current form, the MAC has little hope of meeting that goal. Its IT system is so antiquated, Taylor said, that it cannot process complaints submitted via e-mail.

So once each week, she said, the MAC's staffers print out hard copies of every e-mail they receive. Then they manually type the complaints into their computers.

Poorly integrated IT leads to much bigger problems than wasted receptionist productivity. It also sets the stage for costly miscommunication.

Complaints can't be consolidated electronically. That means, for example, multiple inquiries from neighbors can result in numerous response orders for the same pothole. As a result, the Department of Public Works wastes gasoline on return trips while pavement cracks elsewhere spread unchecked.

The Ballard administration hopes that improving the MAC ultimately drives efficiency gains across local government. But that's a tall order, given the MAC's struggles even answering phones in a timely manner.

Brenda Follif, a trainer for locally based call center consulting firm Phone Pro Inc., said MAC staffers were friendly and professional when she recently called to report an abandoned kitten.

Unfortunately, it took them nearly 12 minutes to answer the phone.

"That is much, much too high," Follif said. "It sounds like a staffing issue. If you have that high abandoned rate, there just aren't enough people answering the phone."

Huber and Taylor envision a modernized MAC featuring the kind of system many businesses now employ. Today's call center technology allows companies to integrate, share and track all communications, whether they're received via the telephone, e-mail or text message.

Embracing that model is critical, said Nosa Eke, publisher of Call Center Times, a Dallas-based newsletter and Web site.

Eke said the MAC should be more than a handset bank staffed with employees who passively wait for the phone to ring. With the proper training and equipment, he said, they could address citizen concerns via Web chats, document their inquiries and take ownership to ensure they're quickly resolved.

"It would be a huge mistake if you didn't think in terms of a comprehensive contact center strategy," Eke said. "With a well-conceptualized center, you can solve a lot of problems."

Unfortunately, what looks good on the drawing board may not be feasible for Indianapolis--at least not immediately.

One of the MAC's problems, Taylor noted, is lack of capacity to handle surges in calls. It's impractical and expensive to staff the center as if call volumes remain constantly near their peaks. But Taylor said the MAC's flexibility to adjust staffing levels is constrained by union contract.

Indeed, the RFI notes that "it's important to the City that all employees currently employed in the MAC be protected and given employment no matter the business model chosen. What is your company's approach to assuming current employees?"

Taylor added: "Call centers that are much larger than ours are used to having the ability to say, 'We need additional people to sign on.' We don't have that capacity. We have those 11.5 FTEs. They go to lunch or on a break, and it's regulated."

Funding fixes

What's more, new IT systems cost money--a resource in short supply as Ballard seeks to cut expenses to balance his budget. That's why the RFI solicits ideas from businesses on how to generate cost savings and new revenue. Ballard's aides say they're not ready to talk about what form MAC privatization might take.

While overhauling the MAC is a tall order, Ballard stands to gain significant political capital if he can pull it off.

He campaigned on promises of creating a smaller, more effective local government. A noticeably improved MAC would provide a strong public signal that he's delivering.

"Ballard rule number one is public safety is job one," Taylor said. "People have made an investment [in Indianapolis]. They want their streets clean and safe. They want their trash picked up. It's [about] those everyday things that some take for granted."

Better MAC service would be great, Burton of the neighborhoods alliance said. She's even open to privatization, assuming it comes with checks and balances.

But she'll believe it when she sees it.

"I wish the mayor good luck. But Mayor Goldsmith wasn't able to pull it off, nor was Mayor Peterson," she said. "I hope he rises to the challenge."

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