Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic disrupted the world in early 2020, the private sector was well on its way to embracing the efficiencies of IT modernization and digital transformation. CIO Magazine estimates that companies spent more than $2 Trillion on digital transformation efforts in 2019 and that 89% of all companies have already, or plan to adopt a digital first strategy. The private sector has recognized efficiencies generated by digital data as well as the advantages of providing a modern, convenient digital user experience for their customers.
Government at all levels however, has been slow to realize the importance of user experience - or civic engagement - in delivering on its services. In part this is due to the fact that consumers who need government services have no option but to get those services from the government. Constituents can’t go somewhere else to get a pothole filled or to register a new business. This lack of pressure means that government has been able to exist in a subpar technical environment for far too long. It also means that government doesn’t get the benefit of the feedback loop that the private sector does. Citizens will come to government for passports, construction permits, and unemployment benefits no matter how terrible the experience.
By the 2000s, many businesses saw that their choice was to move online or die. But government didn’t face that kind of pressure. So while the rest of the world moved online, government often stayed paper-based. While the rest of the world has evolved to a place where we can track anything at all times, order anything from anywhere, and apply for things at midnight from our couch, government has continued to operate with arcane, obsolete, inefficient processes.
Municipalities and counties' reliance on inefficient paper processes and decades old single-use server based technology became a glaring liability during the COVID-19 outbreak when the country was forced to shut down and socially distance. Government employees could not access their work from home which meant services often had to be limited. Unable to access closed municipal buildings, constituents could not submit paperwork. Millions of newly unemployed Americans could not access unemployment benefits because their state systems relied on paper applications or 1950’s era COBOL computer programs, which quickly became overwhelmed.
In a world of increasing disruptions from flooding to wildfires, hurricanes to pandemics, social unrest and increasing cyberattacks, ensuring business continuity - and by extension - government continuity is now critical. If city hall or a municipal building is damaged or if employees cannot physically get to it, how will the government continue to operate and provide services? If governments continue to rely on paper processes and operate inefficiently during so-called “blue sky days”, how could they possibly handle the surge in demand during a crisis or in the aftermath of a disaster?
Over the last decade, a wide range of industries have replaced their paper-based processes with digital applications, to incredible effect. Importantly for governments, removing paper processes promotes efficiency and productivity. Files are stored on a cloud-based platform, safe from cyber and physical threats. The ubiquity of WIFI and mobile devices means that data can be accessed and updated by employees at any time, from anywhere. Time previously spent locating paper files and performing data entry can be dedicated to addressing higher level matters. Services can be rendered to constituents quickly and transparently.
The use of digital files and workflow automation has saved companies significant amounts of money by reducing their need to frequently replenish office supplies, utilize mail carriers, and tie up employees for hours on manual tasks. Cloud-based solutions can also eliminate the cost for required maintenance of on-site servers and other physical infrastructure.
Lastly, digital tools help companies connect with their customers. Constant and instant communication provides companies with critical insight into the needs and concerns of their target market so that necessary actions can be taken.
Of all sectors, government may have the most to gain from going paperless. Local governments and the public sector generally, subject to frequent budget cuts and restrictions on revenue generation, can conserve scant resources and even boost productivity through digitization. Digitization can also improve relations with a constituent base growing increasingly accustomed to immediate, 24/7 service as a standard component of the customer experience. It is strange then, that government has been slow to adopt digital solutions.
Given the new reality we now live in - the work from home culture, Zoom meetings, telemedicine appointments, ordering groceries online, budget crunches for state and local governments, it is as critical now as ever to embrace the efficiencies that digital transformation can bring to local government. The ability to provide the convenience that constituents expect while increasing the productivity of government staff and saving costs or even generating revenue, are now paramount. An infusion of CARES Act funding has provided a rare opportunity for local governments to make an investment in digitization that will pay dividends now and in the future.
There now exists both an opportunity and a need for local governments to greatly improve citizen services by adopting best practices in modern digital government thereby enabling digital interactions with their constituents. This section provides an overview of the concepts and tools that help public sector organizations cut costs, increase productivity, interact with residents, and improve local public services.
Although the term “cloud computing” is widely used, many find its actual definition rather nebulous. Comparing the cloud data storage model to the traditional data storage model clarifies things.
In the traditional model, an organization’s data is stored on server banks maintained by an in-house Information Technology (IT) team. With the cloud, data’s physical storage is outsourced to a hosting company, where it may span multiple servers and locations. The third-party hosting company is responsible for keeping the data available and accessible, as well as maintaining its servers and security.
Because there is no requirement to purchase and maintain internal servers, cloud hosting is cost effective. When an organization’s data usage grows, it simply expands its data subscription plan with the cloud host.
Data hosted in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere - whether from a desktop in the office, a laptop at an employee's home, or a smartphone in the field. This is perfect for organizations with multiple locations, remote workers and/or field workers who need to retrieve information on the go.
A note: Cloud-hosted services differ from managed services, in that managed services are based within the organization. The managed services provider (MSP) replaces or augments the internal IT team, handling hardware maintenance, software updates and monitoring the network 24/7.
Open data refers to the idea that government agencies should make public data available for anyone to access, use and republish, free of charge and copyright restrictions. The data should be complete, as close to a primary source as possible and presented in a non-proprietary format.
The most useful format is a dataset, a collection of data organized around a theme. Examples of themes include census demographics, mile marker locations, business license applications and geological survey information. To see open data in action, visit Data.gov.
The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 mandates that all open data be machine-readable .
Machine-readable does not simply mean that the information is available online. For example, a hand written list of new business registrants that has been scanned and converted to a JPEG image file may be accessible online. However, it is impossible for a computer to extract and process that information, which prevents it from being true and legal open data.
Geographic Information System (GIS)
GIS stands for “geographic information system,” and refers to a system that can capture, manipulate, assess and display all types of spatial information in a geographical format.
GIS is a powerful tool for visualizing location-based data.Municipal governments have used GIS to make informed decisions around route planning, zoning, disaster relief, conservation efforts and city improvements. GIS technology can also be used to analyze trends like epidemics and crime waves.
Map-based web and mobile applications help local governments engage and communicate with their citizens. These channels allow municipalities to share the latest information on local services and city planning developments. GIS also enables good samaritans to alert authorities to public safety and health hazards.The following list describes GIS technology’s various applications in greater detail.
Pinpoint Issues: Municipal 311 help centers and digital citizen request forms are a great way to collect information about non-emergency issues like potholes and graffiti, but the high cost of maintaining them along with the effort required to funnel reports to the appropriate department can be overwhelming . GIS technology gives constituents a way to report that data more efficiently and governments a way to use it more effectively.
Promote Data Transparency: It is more important than ever that government is upfront about operations. Presenting open data through GIS is an effective way to achieve transparency and put information at the fingertips of constituents, thereby cutting down on inbound inquiries to your office that can take up valuable time to respond to.
Collect Feedback: GIS technology enables government agencies to quickly gather citizen feedback on topics like infrastructure improvement. In addition to being more swift, GIS offers a wider variety of responses than more traditional methods like surveys and town hall meetings.
Illustrate Issues: By plotting data points around a specific issue, like vacant properties, governments can use GIS technology to gain powerful insights.
Inform the public: Local governments can use GIS to provide the community with helpful information regarding crime statistics, real estate, planned zoning, emergency management, and more.
Foster Community Development: GIS transforms static city planning documents into collaborative conversations between government and constituents.
E-Government, or E-Commerce
E-government is the idea that a government agency can provide access to services through its website, as well as through traditional channels. As consumers become more accustomed to buying their groceries and filling their prescriptions online, they expect their local government to provide the same level of e-commerce convenience.
This includes things like submitting applications, registering businesses, filing taxes and paying parking tickets – all through the municipal website. In order for this to work, the site must be equipped to process complicated online applications and securely receive payments.
The benefits of e-government reach both the municipal agency and the general population:
Government saves on costly processing of mailed-in applications and physical checks.
Fewer face-to-face meetings leave more time and resources to address higher level matters.
User friendly and easily tracked, online payment processes encourage citizen compliance, thereby enabling the government to generate more revenue.
Constituents are able to access government services from their desktop or mobile device, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
E-government means streamlining services from application submission through license and permit issuance. GovPilot’s cloud-based municipal management software brings e-government to another level. Once an application is submitted, GovPilot™ stores it in a central location, and communication between the applicant and government employees is automated through emails, in-platform alerts and SMS.
In a traditional paper-based workflow, business processes such as building permit applications must be physically passed around various departments before it is approved. Even the most routine tasks can be delayed by communication bottlenecks between departments, or literally lost in the shuffle of paperwork being pushed around the office.
Paperless documents provide the opportunity to create automated workflows around specific tasks. Workflows automate communication and task assignment, and provide accountability to keep the process speeding along. Government employees can automatically be alerted when an issue requires their attention, and citizens can track the progress of their applications.
An example: Code Enforcement
A resident submits a complaint about lawn overgrowth on a government’s website.
The complaint data is automatically aggregated into a centralized database and assigned to a specific property.
Workflows route the complaint to the appropriate person and they receive a notification, email or even a text.
The resident receives a notification that their complaint is being reviewed.
The reviewer can schedule a site visit, request clarification, notify additional departments and more.
Once cleared, the applicant receives automatic notification.
Automated workflows let users define actions (add task to work queue, send notification email) that occur when a trigger happens (a new application is submitted, a weekly deadline has been missed). With dynamic workflow automation software, your organization can customize the actions and triggers to streamline your usual workflow processes.
Electronic Document Management
For a truly paperless government to work, you need a robust electronic document management system – a centralized database for all your organization's documents, forms, and data infrastructure.
A common problem occurs when individual departments digitize their documents, then keep them on separate servers, or in distinct file structures. Electronic document management systems help you avoid problems with conflicting versions of documents, inconsistently updated databases, and incomprehensible file structures.
An electronic document management system solves this fragmentation by integrating all your departments and data infrastructure into one platform. Ideally, this platform is cloud-based in order to support real-time information updates, and be accessible by all your employees regardless of location. This aggregation of data from multiple sources forms your government’s robust knowledge base. Access and management of this information spans departments, removing the data and information bottlenecks that often prevent employees from performing simple tasks.
Digital Customer Service
The shift to digital is significantly impacting customer service. Previously, concerns and questions were fielded through the phone, mail, and walk-in requests. Now citizens are expecting answers to their questions via email and social media, as well.
One way of providing digital customer service is to shift from a model of fielding individual questions and complaints as they come in, to providing information freely and conveniently so that constituents can answer questions themselves. Providing open data, public-facing GIS maps, and a robust FAQ page can help.
Organizations are using apps to handle 311 service requests and complaints, or allowing the public to report issues right from the agency’s website.
Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be a powerful way to disseminate information, handle inbound complaints, and engage with constituents. It’s an especially good way to engage with a younger generation of constituents, but a dedicated strategy needs to be put into place for it to work.
In order for a digital transformation across an organization, department or government, effective implementation and adoption is critical. This is where onboarding comes in.
Technology and digitization are only so good as the staff that use it. In order to find success with digital transformation, employees must be trained and made comfortable with the use of any new technologies so that technology can be leveraged to its full potential. Onboarding is the process which includes both the implementation of technology itself, and the training necessary for staff to fully adopt and use it.
Business Continuity aka Resilience
From a mundane snowstorm that closes roads to massive flooding or damage wrought by a hurricane or tornado, to a global pandemic that keeps everyone home for months, local governments must continue to function and provide services to residents nonetheless. Business continuity falls under the broader category of resilience which has taken on increased urgency for local governments amid a changing climate and growing cyber threats.
Questions to Consider - These are questions to think through when considering digital transformation. Take some time to think through each one as it pertains to your local government. Perhaps a hurricane or the pandemic has already forced your hand.
If a disaster were to strike your community, what would happen to your government’s operations?
The world in which we live is one that relies on data, speed, and convenience. Constituents expect a fast, responsive experience. Disruptions that threaten business continuity are increasing in frequency and magnitude. The decades old manual processes that local governments have relied upon to provide services to their constituents no longer keep up with the pace and expectations of the modern world. In fact, these manual processes represent a liability to local governments in terms of cost, efficiency, and reliability.
The crises facing towns, cities, and counties are inherently local, requiring a detailed, block-by-block understanding of neighborhoods' needs and efficient, responsive services. While it is clear that local government budgets have been severely impacted by the pandemic, there exists an opportunity to make necessary, meaningful changes and investments now that will pay dividends in terms of inclusivity, safety, efficiency, resiliency, and even revenue generation in the short and long-term.