City trying to do more with less

March 12, 2011
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The city of Grand Rapids recently announced it was establishing a Customer First Response Team to enhance the services it provides to residents, neighborhood associations and business districts. It’s a new version of a previous endeavor.

The CFR is part of City Manager Greg Sundstrom’s ongoing effort to transform how the city delivers its services. It’s also an offshoot of a former program the city began a decade ago, the Community Oriented Government, which eventually faded from the scene as budget deficits called for worker layoffs, which put a strain on the city as to how it could allocate its human and monetary resources.

“COG was very effective. It was assigned to improve customer service and strengthen the relationship between city staff, neighborhood associations and business associations. It took a lot of resources to have that in place. Behind the scenes, you had three separate teams addressing issues for the areas that they were assigned to,” said Tom Almonte, assistant to the city manager.

“But that slowly faded away with the challenges of the limited resources that we have. We just couldn’t afford to maintain such a robust team to be addressing issues in that manner. But like anything, you often don’t realize the benefit until it goes away,” he added.

Well, it’s back, but this time in a slimmed down form. Almonte said after COG gradually disappeared, the city figured out how to make the effort more efficient while keeping the program’s basic principles and goals in place, and revived it as Customer First Response.

“What losing COG forced us to do was to think of a new model that kind of borrowed the best from COG, and create something that was more sustainable and used less resources. That was the idea behind it,” said Almonte, who joined Sundstrom’s team in October 2009.

The city designed CFR as a single portal for residents and groups to report a problem or make an inquiry about an issue. That portal works within the city’s current departmental organization, which has a small number of major departments that contain the services the city offers.

For example, one of the major departments is Design, Development and Enterprise Services. The design and development part includes Economic Development, the Downtown Development Authority, Building Inspections, Planning and the Development Center under its umbrella. Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong manages the design and development section. Pam Ritsema is in charge of the enterprise services portion, which has six other services under its wing, including Parking Services.

Almonte said CFR uses fewer resources than COG, and that includes human resources. One person in the city’s administrative office has been assigned to be the public’s initial contact for each of the city’s three wards. Almonte is the point person for residents and businesses in the 2nd Ward. Haris Alibasic, a member of the city’s executive office, performs that function for the 1st Ward. Nancy Meyer, an assistant to DeLong, does the same for the 3rd Ward. Each will work in tandem with a ward’s two city commissioners.

“This is divided by ward instead of in the past when COG was divided in a different way. So it’s clearly defined, and those three individuals that are working directly with those two commissioners and the neighborhood associations have a single team of about nine to 10 people for service groups — not departments but service groups,” emphasized Almonte, who joined the city in 2004.

“So if we have something related to, let’s say, design and development, which Eric DeLong is responsible for, we can go to Eric and say there’s an issue related to, say, building inspections because that is within the design team. So instead of having three separate teams behind the scene, we have a single team on staff. They are standing by if there is an issue related to their service area,” he added.

Once an issue is presented to Almonte, Alibasic or Meyer, the city determines who should be involved with a case from those who are assigned to the CFR team. “Think of the CFR as a way of managing internal resources. It is a way for us to manage our resources better,” said Almonte.

But Almonte said CFR hasn’t been formed to get around the system. When someone makes an inquiry, they will be asked if they have contacted a department that is responsible for handling their issue. For example, if a resident or association is concerned about the condition of a building, they will be asked if they have contacted the building inspections office. If they haven’t, they will be sent there first.

“We want to make sure the city departments aren’t bypassed. What comes to us are issues that are usually complex and are beyond a simple phone call from someone who is upset that their trash has not been picked up,” he said.

The city is planning a soft launch of the CFR effort this month and will eventually tie it to its proposed 311 customer relationship management system, which has been projected to become fully active within the next 24 months. But Almonte added that the city is already working on a few cases under the CFR banner. He said these are test cases that give the city a way to work out any unexpected kinks.

In a manner of speaking, the CFR is an effort by the city to do more with fewer resources. Almonte said instead of having 40 staffers involved in a particular issue, now there will be only a handful.

“The only people involved in those issues will be people that need to be at the table or need to be notified,” he said. “And that is where it’s going to produce the efficiency in the process, which will allow us to possibly be more efficient in how we will manage these types of issues when these come to us.”

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