Crises have a habit of encouraging people to invent their way out of problems. And nowhere is this phenomenon playing out more clearly since the arrival of the pandemic than in municipal offices. Clerks were already in the process of adopting new technologies to modernize operations before 2020. But since the emergence of COVID-19, there is a more urgent need to make administrative procedures accessible. Having citizens queue in person to transact business with municipal staff is no longer something that authorities want to encourage. And more than ever, citizens are insisting on services being available electronically from their homes, offices or wherever they happen to be.
Municipal offices, for example, are historically where people go to get information about upcoming projects and listen to hearings. According to interim city clerk Soulinnee Phan of Lincoln, Nebraska, her team would regularly entertain in-person committee meetings. Now with the need for officials to maintain social distancing in the workplace and prevent large gatherings, those meetings are being held via Zoom.
Moving beyond outdated processes is long overdue, according to Phan. If COVID-19 did anything, it highlighted limitations within her office. While things have improved since 2013, there are still ways in which her office does not leverage technology to full effect. For instance, while members of the community can view some documents online, they’re still not able to submit payments via the website at the same time, even though such technology has been around for at least a quarter of a century.
The need to respond to the pandemic is part of a broader push among local officials to digitize their organizations and improve efficiency. Part of the challenge, according to Phan, is cultural. As is the case in many organizations, there is often inertia built into long standing municipal processes, and a comfort level on the part of staff to continue working as they always have.
Innovators like Phan, however, know that this is a problem – both for taxpayers and the organizations themselves. The office cannot remain behind the times indefinitely, she says, doing the same thing over and over. It needs to move forward and start using some of the private sector’s IT innovations to improve customer experience and cut costs.
It’s not just the Lincoln, Nebraska, office, though, that received a wake-up call from the pandemic. Other offices are now discovering that they need to digitize if they want to continue to engage citizens.
Aurora, Colorado has struggled to facilitate citizen involvement in public council meetings for instance. In Aurora, city clerk Stephen Ruger says that his office made all meetings virtual as far back as March. The problem for his organization has been implementing remote citizen participation. At the moment, the team is relying on pre-recorded voicemails and emails for question and answer sessions. Ruger hopes that technology will allow his team to patch in a public phone queue shortly.
Ruger also says that his offices are pushing to digitize signatures. The team was already taking steps in this direction before the crisis. But with so many unknowns related to COVID-19, the sensible approach seems to be to go fully digital now, if the present situation persists long-term.
Most municipalities are also taking steps to protect their workforces by instituting remote working arrangements. The Municipality of Meaford, an AccessE11 customer, saw a dramatic change in-office availability of frontline staff back in March. Having recently adopted AccessE11’s cloud-based service for citizen request management, the municipality was able to seamlessly transition to a work from home model without impact to its ability to respond to citizen requests. According to Matt Smith, Meaford’s Director of Community Services, this would not not have been possible prior to the municipality’s modernization of its service request management process using AccessE11. Smith spoke in detail about embracing cloud based technology to manage resident complaints in this recent MISA sponsored webinar.
There’s also a growing recognition among municipalities that not all citizens can access their services during regular 9 am to 5 pm office hours. Most municipalities are looking into ways to extend their out-of-hours services offering to evenings and weekends to make them more convenient for modern lifestyles.
Thus, it seems that it’s not a matter of whether modernization will happen at municipal authorities; it is when. Public expectations will make sure of that.