Town pledges to put ‘Community First’

Customer service sounds like something to worry about when you’re in a business, but for town government it is also a major priority to meet the needs of residents.

Town employees joined First Selectman Peter Tesei at Town Hall last week to celebrate the launch of “Community First” — an initiative created to revitalize the town’s services by updating its technological infrastructure and enhancing employees’ interpersonal skills. The initiative will provide new training to town employees and also give them a clearer line of communication within Town Hall about how to respond to issues, concerns and complaints.

In a speech introducing the program, Mr. Tesei said the initiative would “strengthen our employees’ capabilities to better serve and assist” residents and visitors and assist those employees in keeping up with the demands of the age of technology. The two goals, he explained, begot the Community First slogan: Responsive Professionals, Integrated Technology.

With a town population of about 62,000, the “heart of the initiative” is enhancing employees’ interpersonal relationships with consumers and educating those consumers on what the town is and is not capable of, Mr. Tesei said. He said these steps were not being taken because of any specific complaints about the conduct of town employees, but rather to improve something that’s already good.

“This is not punitive,” he insisted. “It’s a proactive step to reinforce what [town employees] do in a modernized way and utilize resources.”

Major contributors to the Community First program included Kara Pellegrino, special projects coordinator for the town’s Human Resources department, and Mike Rosen, executive assistant in the first selectman’s office, who were also present at the launch party.

Mr. Tesei said the duo had refreshed his sense of idealism while working on the project and also acknowledged Human Resources Director Mary Pepe for being the “spark” that kept the Community First concept alive in its earlier stages.

During the question and answer portion of the event, one attendee asked if there were tools in place that could measure the success of the initiative. Ms. Pellegrino answered that there would eventually be surveys available on the town’s website to rate employee interactions as well as comment cards at the front desk of every town department.

One concern from employees was the potential damage of a negative comment being registered against them, especially if they were not in the wrong. Mr. Tesei assured employees that anonymous comment cards would not be taken into consideration because “If someone doesn’t have the courage of their conviction to make their comment, we can’t give it credence” since the motivation behind it is unknown and the individual would not be available to clarify any confusion regarding their statements.

Another individual inquired about how much credibility residents who make a habit of calling town employees to complain would receive.

Ms. Pellegrino said employees were generally aware of such citizens, who are “politely” referred to as “frequent flyers,” but that the town also did not want to discourage anyone from speaking up if there was an issue they wanted to bring forth.

Ms. Pepe then stepped in to remind attendees that Community First was not only established to enhance external customer service but also to increase town employees’ responsiveness to each other’s needs, “which ultimately serves the public’s needs.”

Also discussed during the question and answer period were the five modules that comprise the initiative. Ms. Pellegrino explained that the first is a seminar-style basic introductory to customer service and the second is a more intensive, interactive classroom-style introductory class. The third module is a phone courtesy class for those who attended the first two, if appropriate, followed by an enforcement class on how to handle difficult customers. The fifth module is a supervisory class, for department heads and others who monitor employees’ work, to maintain standards, she explained.

The launch wasn’t just for town employees. It was also attended by members of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET). But the majority of the people at the event were town employees, with several department heads there including the heads of the Parks and Recreation, Health, Inland and Wetlands and Conservation, all of which have a great deal of public interaction. This was also true of the town employees there, many of whom were from departments like the Town Clerk, Town Assessor and Tax Collector’s offices.

Additionally, Town Clerk Carmella Budkins, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, Nathaniel Witherell head Allen Brown and even Chief of Police James Heavey were at the launch.

Several town employees spoke positively about the initiative afterwards, even remarking that they were looking forward to the training since it could give them a better perspective about dealing with the public, some of which call into town departments in stressed or upset states.

Mr. Tesei concluded the event by thanking the employees who helped establish Community First and reminding everyone that the town was working hard to put the community’s needs front and center. Ms. Pellegrino also promoted the town’s Twitter account and blog, which will provide residents with monthly departmental highlights and remind them how difficult many town employees’ jobs are, she said.

The town may be followed on Twitter under the name TOGCommunity1st. The town’s blog may be found at community1st.tumblr.com.

 

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