Ask ODOT knows a little… about a lot of things

At ODOT, we rely on our citizens’ representative office. A lot. It’s often the first place we hear about things that, well, members of the public just aren’t happy about. The office is called Ask ODOT and the specialists that work there are top-notch customer service professionals.

How do we know? By looking at their post-service survey results from the past decade or so. Ask ODOT has consistently received high marks – 90 percent and above – for providing good or excellent service. And that’s even if the customer didn’t get the answer he or she hoped for…

What is Ask ODOT?

Ask ODOT is our “public” inbox – the first stop for the public with questions about what we do and why. In 2020, Ask ODOT fielded more than 1,000 public contacts each month, most arriving by phone or email.

“We know a little about a lot of things,” said Tori Hickerson, Ask ODOT team lead. “But we’re not the subject matter experts. We often have to track down who’s best qualified to prepare an answer.”

The Ask ODOT service goes back to 1991 when Gov. Barbara Roberts directed all state agencies to establish a contact for questions from the public. At first, then-ODOT Director Grace Crunican set a required response time of 24 hours. That changed to five days and then five business days as the volume increased and requests became more complex. This past spring we extended the response time to 10 business days because COVID-19 restrictions meant delays.

Kassy Brico
Kassy Bricco responds to hundreds of customer requests each month as an Ask ODOT specialist.

Taking care of business

Ask ODOT helps make sure we serve everyone fairly and equitably. When everyone has access – when everyone has an easy way to learn more – we’re expanding our reach. It’s not just about improving the transportation system but upgrading everyone’s knowledge and understanding of the benefits and burdens involved in what we do.

Hickerson leads a crew of three specialists and one analyst. They occupy cubicles in the Director’s Office although they mostly work from home these days. The service operates Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The queries come in by phone, email, online and by mail and not just from the public but from internal staff, local elected officials, legislators and other state agencies, including the governor’s office.

Most of the time life is pretty familiar at the business end of the phones or website. Is this road open? Why are you paving that road? How can I get a DMV appointment? Callers and emailers report slides, downed trees, overgrown branches and complain about employee driving.

Never a dull moment

But the reasons for contacting Ask ODOT can get, um, interesting. Callers have reported encounters with beings from outer space, talked about the value of teleportation and questioned how to harness the energy of wind drafts behind trucks.

The job requires specialized skills. The team has years of customer service experience and must exercise good judgement, evaluate hot-topic items, notice trends and reach out to the appropriate staff to craft the response.

Calls certainly reflect current affairs. The crew heard stress during the wildfires and worry during pandemic. Some may not have an issue but just get frustrated with bureaucratic process. Ask ODOT can help.

“Sometimes our best tool is to just listen,” Hickerson said. “Listening can help defuse a difficult situation. When people know they’re being heard, the whole tone of the conversation will shift. We need to have a degree of compassion for what they’re going through. We’re all about public service.”