Breaking barriers in local government tech innovation
Work from home. Digital services. Remote access.
Until recently, these weren’t terms commonly associated with local government. But then everything changed, and quickly. The coronavirus pandemic shut down public buildings and offices, and everyone, including government workers and citizens, were forced to adapt and embrace new ways of working.
The shift wasn’t always easy. But it highlighted an opportunity. Now, cities and counties who have traditionally been slow to evolve have seen the benefits of digital services. This has ushered in a slew of innovative ways to serve citizens, and created an environment that’s more open minded to change.
Will the pandemic be the catalyst for sustained innovation in local government? It’s very possible. The important thing is for cities and counties to pursue transformation in a thoughtful way. By embracing a long-term vision and looking for solutions that will have impacts beyond the immediate moment, local governments can use today’s challenges to lay the foundation for a smarter future.
Education is one of the most discussed public services impacted by the pandemic. While many school districts around the county are working with some form of remote learning, not every student has access to Wi-Fi. San Rafael City officials and volunteers understood this challenge and came together to keep students in a densely populated neighborhood connected. Their solution? A new mesh Wi-Fi network, which places routers on public structures such as street lights and buildings, and is expected to reach approximately 2,000 students.
Court hearings were impacted when social distancing protocols kept people out of courtrooms. Instead of postponing all hearings for the foreseeable future, Navasota, Texas, found a work-around with the help of Zoom. Each morning their municipal court holds virtual walk-in sessions for defendants with citations and cases not requiring juries. The hearings are streamed on YouTube to make sure they’re open and transparent.
Another major issue for impacted residents is not knowing where to go for help when they need it. To streamline citizen questions and provide a single point of contact, Ulster County, N.Y., launched a Recovery Service Center. The center covers everything from unemployment and food assistance to contact tracing and isolation support, and is staffed by specially-trained members of numerous Ulster County departments. With the help of self-service tools including a chatbot, the resource is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
An insider’s perspective: Nadia Hansen, CIO of Clark County, Nev.
Beyond individual solutions, some counties and cities are implementing system-wide changes. In Clark County, Nev., the local government that has been working around the clock to quickly roll out digital services. Nadia Hansen, CIO for Clark County shares her firsthand experience on meeting the expectations of a staggering 2.3 million residents and 10,000 employees during a global pandemic:
Similar to many local government offices around the country, our offices shut down in March 2020 with little warning. While we were lucky to not have to start from scratch as we already started looking to support teleworking prior to the pandemic, the speed and scale at which we switched to a remote working environment was unprecedented. All critical county employees were up and running at home within days.
New technology implementation in government is a notoriously slow process, but with a clear and immediate need for digital services, our team was able to implement our ideas at a speed at which we could have only dreamed of before.
One concrete example is the relaunch of our county website. The new site serves as a digital portal and allows citizens to do everything from apply for a business license to pay their property taxes. We are also launching a service to help residents track their service requests or file a complaint.
Despite being in charge or our city’s technology deployments, I strongly believe technology is not a cure-all solution. Technology is important, but so is human connection. This mentality has been a constant as we put together our remote working policies and when creating our online portal.
Not everyone loves the idea of working from home for example, so in order to ensure productivity and satisfaction levels stayed high, we introduced daily standups. These 15 to 20 minutes meetings provide managers an opportunity to have insight into everyone’s progress and gives reports a dedicated time to talk through challenges.
And when it comes to our digital portal, all services that we provide online will still be offered in-person (post-COVID). For some, the convenience of being able to accomplish what they need without leaving their home is ideal, while others feel more comfortable with face-to-face interaction. It is our job to make sure everyone has the same level of satisfaction no matter where they go for help.
I am proud of our team and excited to see the impact of the changes we have made, which will be felt long after we find ourselves at the other end of this pandemic. I’ll end with reminding my fellow technology leaders to not to forget the importance of human interaction as we look towards digital services. This is the only way we can meet the needs of every citizen we serve.
Lindsay Pica-Alfano founded Govlaunch with the belief that all local governments, regardless of size, need easy access to the innovative practices and tools being implemented by their peers, so they can avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
Nadia Hansen serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Department of Information Technology at Clark County, Nevada. Nadia is accountable for strategic planning, financial management, and services delivery oversight to 38 County departments, 10,000 users spread over 140+ County buildings, with a technology landscape of over 150 mission-critical applications