Overcoming big city problems with a little city budget: How El Cajon, Calif., kept its economy moving forward through COVID-19
To say that we are facing unprecedented challenges is an understatement during this time as public sector practitioners. As a city IT Director, I’m noticing that it is also a really interesting time for technology.
My city of El Cajon, California, sits just outside of San Diego and is full of local businesses and local flavors. With just over 100,000 residents, we tend to have big city problems along with a little city budget. This necessitates a good bit of creativity, especially in how we leverage technology to meet our goals and public expectations.
As with most cities right now, our immediate goals have shifted in the past few months. The challenge we faced most recently was how to keep the city’s economy moving forward in the context of COVID-19. In the pandemic’s earliest days, as we were ensuring public health and safety, we never lost sight of how we needed to keep our services running to support the new and existing businesses here that were creating a positive growth environment. These days, keeping services running also means not unduly burdening our businesses and residents with redundant processes and antiquated systems.
Two Key Elements
In our experience, to weather this and other storms, a couple of key foundational elements need to be in place: culture and technology. Because our city embraces cohesive teamwork across all departments, we don’t have the burdensome silos that can be common in other city governments. Even prior to this public health crisis, there were no initiatives that were single department in nature. In fact, our centralized IT Project vetting process ensured that all city roles were involved in common projects. This constant cross-pollination created the connectivity and strength that has enabled us to meet the disruption brought by COVID-19 while still getting work done and even improving customer experience.
On the technology front, our timing was fortunate. Roughly six months ago, we invested in a new civic services software solution by Tyler Technologies. The new system integrated and automated all aspects of land management, planning, permitting and code inspections. Our impetus was not unique foresight into a crisis, but rather our need to replace multiple homegrown systems before their creator and main user retired. The city’s team approach led us to a community development solution that would be easy for end users but also detailed enough to facilitate solid inspections and reviews.
To keep costs down for our small city budget, we handled the project management and configuration work in-house, which saved money and helped us remain nimble for customization. As part of the rollout, we outfitted our inspectors and code compliance officers with iPads for complete access to information from the field. In the project’s second phase, which occurred just a month after the initial release, we rolled out electronic plan reviews and a citizen self-service portal. This was in early March – just two weeks before our “normal” work would be altered indefinitely.
Quick Pivot to Full Citizen Self-Service
Our initial plan for customer self-service was to start with seven permit and plan types – a small subset of what we handle – and then serially add in the other types through May. COVID-19 changed that plan. Instead, we shifted our configuration team entirely over to enhancing citizen self-service so that we could support every single permit type and process online. We were 100% virtual by April 1, something we never imagined, but became newly critical for ensuring business continuity along with public safety.
Of course, the pandemic has slowed business in general. Our permit and plan volumes are now 50% of what we consider normal. For those that continue to come in, however, 60 percent are coming in online. The other 40 percent are coming from other sources but with those cases, too, we are completing the processing, attachments, reviews, corrections, certifications, and even payments virtually. In six weeks, 355 users registered for the service. What’s more, the city has been able to process more than $200,000 in permit plan fees, with 42 percent of those transactions done online. With our inspection rate at 99 percent, we are open for business, and that is something to be excited about.
While internally we’re much faster and nimble as a staff, the new technology immediately improved our customers’ experience. Citizen self-service allows residents and contractors to check in on an application’s status at their convenience and see exactly where things are in the process. Knowing that an application is 80% complete reduces anxiety and that feeling that one’s paperwork is lost in a black hole of bureaucracy. In addition, high-volume customers like solar companies are seeing significant efficiencies, as they can enter and follow large numbers of applications without ever entering city hall.
Customers who need extra help benefit as well, as our staff time is freed up to focus on non-repeat customers or unique situations. Probably every permit department has a story of a resident coming in with a drawing of a new back yard patio on a napkin. These days, we scan a digital file of the napkin and off we go, straight through e-reviews. Technology has enhanced our ability to provide a more personal, human touch, which is a fantastic thing.
The New Landscape
That human touch will still be important post COVID-19 when residents can again enter city hall freely. The pandemic has driven a lot of change, and some things will look different for quite a while. But cities fortunate to have the right tools for this time will be able to continue to adapt and serve.
At present, we understand that resident communication is critical. Our community members need to know what to do, where to go, what resources are available, and what businesses are open. These things can change daily. To this end, we moved money around to prioritize a new, mobile-friendly citizen engagement tool that will be fully operational in early June. A nice feature is the business directory, which allows us to highlight our great businesses but also allows owners to self-edit for real-time updates.
We’ve also seen new innovation in virtual recreation, something that is happening in creative ways in cities across the country. In addition to virtual recreation classes and virtual races, residents can request city staff to draw hopscotch boards on their sidewalks. In a similar way, we are working with vendors to distribute jump ropes and hula hoops.
Beyond the fun, efficiencies for cities look different in the new COVID-19 world. With people working remotely and reacting to ever-changing circumstances, our ideas of victory in any context are moving targets. That said, there is an energy around the teamwork that is newly evident. Our multi-departmental COVID-19 response teams are tackling things beyond the pandemic, including issues around homelessness. Applying this energy and harnessing synergies across disciplines can move the needle on other challenges facing our community.
As our city leverages technology to solve problems and improve lives, the dividends will just keep coming.
Sara Diaz is the director of IT for El Cajon, Calif.