At the city where I used to work, there is a woman named Cindy who handles all the calls for the public works department, providing a front-line response to all requests and complaints. With her knowledge of city regulations and procedures, she is quickly able to determine the proper reaction to each caller's concerns. If the caller is requesting some type of service the city does not normally provide, like shoveling their personal walk or driveway or cutting down their neighbor's tree hanging over the property line, Cindy is able to calmly explain why the city is not able to help and can sometimes suggest alternate solutions.
For calls related to services or information normally provided by the city, Cindy takes down the information needed and forwards it to the appropriate person or department. For potholes needing repair, Cindy sends the request to the street department. For water main breaks, to the water department. If garbage is left at the curb by a tenant moving out, the call goes to a contract waste hauler. Baby ducks in the catch basin? Back to the street department.
I was always amazed that nothing slowed Cindy down. There would be days when I watched her on the phone handling an irate caller while she typed a building permit for an applicant waiting in her office—and then paused a moment from those tasks to answer the street department on the radio.
Cindy's duties extend to handling workers' compensation paperwork, insurance claims, and tracking and reporting overtime and time off for the public works department. (I also discovered that she was available to sympathetically dispense pain relievers after one of those particularly difficult interactions with a citizen.)
Citizens who visit Cindy's office find a woman who knows what color their home is, the names of their neighbors, and most likely the names of previous owners. I even noticed that citizens in town call Cindy for phone numbers—using her as a telephone directory service.
For some time, I thought perhaps a city of our size, with a population of about 10,000, was the exception. But at a recent American Public Works Association luncheon in the Chicago area, I found myself talking about city-related issues with a woman who works for Naperville, Ill. Eventually I realized I was talking to Naperville's “Cindy”—except her name was Laurie. This woman performs many of the same functions that Cindy provides. I realized if Naperville—with a population of more than 130,000—had a “Cindy,” then perhaps every city does.
Public works is a demanding, fast-paced work environment in which priorities and work assignments can change within minutes due to emergencies—some real, some perceived. A “Cindy,” usually the secretary or assistant at the front lines for the public works department or a particular sub-department, can make the day move in a much easier, more focused, and efficient manner.
With the celebration this month of Administrative Professional's Week (April 24–30), let's all take some time out of our busy schedules to make sure our city's “Cindy” knows how valuable and much appreciated he or she is.