Service London and ServiceOntario are about to embark on a new relationship.
When I joined city council at the end of 2006, a number of councillors were buzzing about the fantastic trip they had made to Calgary a year or so earlier. They were impressed with how well-organized and stream-lined the city services were.
They were particularly enthusiastic about the implementation of a call centre to interface with the public. The 3-1-1 service was seen as a model of efficiency in dealing with citizen concerns and issues, giving the public with a trained and knowledgeable real person at the end of the phone line who could answer questions promptly thereby freeing professional, specialized staff to focus on their work rather dealing with constant interruptions by phones. The supportive database system would also track calls, ensure follow-up, and inform affected persons about the status of the enquiry. The system would provide summary reports and statistics which could be very helpful in allocating staff and resources as well as keeping council informed about activity in their wards.
Council heartily endorsed the concept. It sounded good: more satisfied customers, more information, more time to work on policy.
The chief administrative officer, Jeff Fielding, was also keen. He had seen the system work in other communities and was anxious to get it moving in London. Council agreed and voted for some money to be directed to the project from the operating budget contingency reserve near the end of 2007.
Not quite so enthusiastic was the city’s support staff. The call centre would require longer hours of service to the public, meaning more evening and weekend work. Some workers feared that they would be replaced by experienced call centre workers. Some worried that they would not be comfortable with the job requirements. Change is hard.
Nevertheless, progress was being made in negotiations with the bargaining unit. A tentative agreement was reached that allowed for some increases in the hours of operation while reducing the overall costs of the initiative. Things seemed to be moving ahead.
Then came the 2008 budget. When faced with a choice of keeping the tax levy increase below inflation or a call centre for $4M in capital and operating costs, most of us chose to listen to the many calls and emails we received from the public. We didn’t need a call centre report to let us know what they thought.
As a result, the 3-1-1 service was not to be, at least during my term of office.
But the idea, which has never really died, was revived at last week’s Finance and Administration Committee. It is now part of “Service London”, an initiative which is designed to “improve the delivery of customer services” through a number of internal projects such as “developing customer service standards, implementing a one-stop central customer counter, and increasing online availability of e-services.”
It also envisions partnerships with outside boards, agencies and commissions, and with other institutions and even other levels of government.
According to the report from Jeff Fielding, ServiceOntario has approached the city to “work toward inter-jurisdictional service delivery” which would explore opportunities for partnerships while maintaining separate accountability.
I’m not sure what this means, but one concern immediately comes to mind.
ServiceOntario is located in the Bell Building owned by Shmuel Farhi. Last year, there was a lot of turmoil over the Bell workers in the building. Their lease was up for renewal in 2012, and given their reduced numbers, Mr Farhi expressed concern in a letter to council that he could not continue to keep the building open if they rented only three floors instead of five. He would have to “mothball the building” and London would lose 700 jobs. Wouldn’t it be nice if the city could rent a few floors, maybe even move in completely? No worries about a new city hall or renovations. He concluded his offer pointing out that “should the city move offices there, they would be part of a ‘government block’ that includes the Federal Building and the Provincial courthouse.”
How’s that for partnerships?
In the end, a compromise was reached, and the workers stayed. But the whole affair left a rather bitter taste.
It is no secret now that the city was interested in purchasing the Bell Building when it went up for sale a couple of years ago. Even before we had the opportunity to discuss the issue in camera, Mr Farhi was emailing us, telling council to forget about buying the building, let him buy it and he would give us a good deal on the rent.
How did he know we were thinking about buying it? How did he manage to make a successful bid that was slightly less than was ours but without conditions?
The city is interested in seeking out some new and creative relationships, both with the public and private sector. The proposed collaboration with Service Ontario will be one of those.
But where will those relations be housed?