Evanston’s 311 operators are getting some criticism for being just a little “too helpful.”

At a 2nd Ward meeting Thursday night, Evanston resident Betty Sue Ester complained that when she asks to be connected to a specific city employee, instead of just putting the call through, the operater quizzes her about what she’s calling about.

“It’s kind of irritating,” Ester said, “It’s time-consuming.”

“If you ask for a specific person, they should just connect you,” she added.

Joe McRae, the assistant to the city manager who oversees the 311 operation, said the operators are instructed “to try to be helpful” and answer questions directly whenever they can.

He said the operators are also told to use a “warm transfer” approach when switching calls.

That means the operator calls the employee’s number and waits to see whether the employee picks up the phone or the call goes to voice mail.

That way, McRae said, if the call does go to voice mail the operator can tell the caller the employee isn’t in and check whether someone else can answer the question.

Callers who want to reach a city worker directly, without going through the 311 center, may find it difficult.

Direct-line phone numbers for only a dozen top-level managers are available on the city website, leaving the other nearly 800 city workers hard to reach except through 311. 

And 311 operators have been known to refuse to give out a direct-line number for a lower level manager when a caller specifically requests it.

Top: Assistant to the City Manager Joe McRae speaking at the 2nd Ward meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. 311 Call Center – how did we survive without it?

    While Wally B and the City Council search ways to close down what they call luxury services such as branch libraries, art centers, recreation centers and even perhaps the Ecology Center, they spend about $1 million and hire 20 more union employees last year during the Great Recession and give us this 311 Call Center.

    Now I ask you – how did Evanston ever get along for the past century without the 311 Call Center?

    It seems to me the 311 Call Center is a luxury item. So why in the world did the City Council feel it's necessary to have while cutting or threatening to cut other aforementioned services?

    I give you another exhibit of failed leadership and misguided policies.

    And just watch how our local bureaucrats will grow our precious little 311 Call Center in years to come. It might even evolve into a Democrat patronage system if it isn't already.

    These things will only happen if voters sit idly by.

    Maybe I just will run for alderthing…

    1. Run Anonymous Al, Run…

      …your numerous postings demonstrate a thoughtful, considerate, and well balanced approach. Your leadership would be helpful to Evanston.

      Run Anonymous Al, Run !!

    2. You know, I agree with you

      You know, I agree with you but for one thing: your parochial animosity party line. Democrat, Republican, tea party,  all  failures.  So don't put on the horse blinders.  It limits intellectual development and strategies for composite solutions on which all and the nation are dependent.

  2. I Didn’t Know!

    I didn't know that the new 311 center was going to be used as a switchboard for the city of Evanston. I am confused as to why Betty Sue "HAD" to speak with a specific person when she called 311. If she had to speak with one specific employee, shouldn't that employee have given her their direct number? Are the citizens of Evanston expecting a little too much from 311? You know if Betty Sue's call went to voice mail, she would have been satisfied with that now would she? 

  3. Facts

    I suppose it is convenient to ignore that the city did restructuring and cut out many jobs of people who were essentially doing a lot of call fielding in a much less accountable way.  They centralized the service and in the process increased efficiency and actually saved money. Shame on us for complaining without acknowledging the full story. Too helpful, not helpful enough… no one is ever happy.

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