modern saas cloud over city

How a Cloud-Based Civic Platform Drives Modernization

State and local agencies nationwide are moving to create more constituent-friendly processes. They’re embracing modernization via cloud-based technologies, with an eye toward bolstering the underlying IT layer and meeting rising expectations for resident service.

In the midst of this effort, they need to balance equity and enhanced accessibility, with compliance and privacy concerns. To that end, CIOs are looking beyond mere infrastructure, as they position their teams to deliver applications and innovation on top of the stack.

In a recent Accela webinar hosted by e.Republic, Experience Matters: Creating Constituent-Friendly Regulatory Processes, state and local leaders heard how an enterprise government-as-a-platform (GaaP) approach can help to meet these goals. The webinar was moderated by Dustin Haisler, chief innovation officer at e.Republic, and featured insights by Accela panelists, Brian Wick, vice president of product marketing, and Darryl Booth, managing director of Accela’s Center for Expertise and Government Affairs.

Delivering friendlier processes

Agencies are under pressure to make regulatory processes and other resident interactions smooth to navigate and easier to access, said Brian Wick.

Too often, residents and businesses must engage in “complex, long-running interactions” in order to get things done, he said. “That might be a license application, a permit application, some code enforcement function. Oftentimes there are multiple steps there: It’s just incredible how intricate and complex some of these transactions and interactions are.”

Agencies are rightly thinking about more constituent-friendly approaches, new means of digital service delivery that are available 24/7 on any device. They’re pursuing more informative websites — with intuitive interfaces, easy-to-navigate forms, applications to support digital document submission and plan review.

The key to modernization is a higher level of transparency, helping to provide insights for residents. “It’s really important to them,” Wick said. “They want to know: Where am I in your process? Because they’ve got people to pay, they’ve got contractors.”

Agencies need to deliver faster, more efficient processes with greater visibility and accessibility for a broad range of users. “They’re experiencing this demand by their constituents, and they want to meet that demand with digital online mechanisms,” Wick said.

Moving towards SaaS

A government-as-a-platform model in support of civic applications can help municipalities answer that call, and many are already moving in this direction.

“Nearly all new government software purchases will be SaaS in 2022,” said Darryl Booth. He pointed to several reasons driving this trend.

The as-a-service model frees IT teams from the daily care and feeding of legacy systems, especially in support of robust cybersecurity. SaaS delivers “a much-improved and evergreen security profile, with automatic software patches and upgrades,” Booth said. “The underlying database, the operating system, the application servers — they are always up to date, without fanfare.”

This is a boon to agencies that find themselves struggling to attract and retain hard-to-find (and highly-priced) cyber talent. With SaaS, “you’re getting the very best oversight from leading cloud vendors, organizations like Microsoft, which spends over a billion dollars a year to stay up-to-date with their Azure monitoring and protection,” he said.

Liberated from the grunt work of patching and updating, IT talent is free to focus its energies of bringing new tools and capabilities to the fore. With a cloud-based platform for civic apps, this happens quickly and easily.

Many municipalities have discovered this already, Booth noted. They’ve leveraged the power of a cloud-based platform to pivot on the fly in support of rapidly evolving requirements, from cannabis licensing, to the COVID crisis, to escalating demands on emergency response teams.

“A service-based architecture lets your IT department get really creative and do amazing things,” Booth said.

By adopting a cloud-based civic platform, agencies also can free themselves from the cost and complexity that comes with implementing individual point solutions from multiple vendors.

“We work with CIOs, many of which are supporting 100 or 200 applications. It’s kind of spun out of control,” Wick said. With a platform approach, “there is one vendor to become familiar with and to develop a relationship with, one technology to administer and support. You get data sharing and cross-department integration — a digital front door, one pane of glass.”

Accela’s offerings bring this to life. “We have the civic applications, which are preconfigured solutions, and we have them across 10 different domain areas,” Wick said. “We truly believe that that’s the right approach, and we have many customers that validate that, using us cross-departmentally.”

Booth pointed to Manatee County, Fla., where civic leaders adopted Accela as part of their cloud-first strategy. They leveraged Accela to go paperless, moving all key processes online, and were uniquely well-situated to cope with the changes wrought by the pandemic.

“As COVID hit, they were able to send their employees home with laptops without skipping a beat. In fact, in March of 2020, the same month that all the employees were sent home to work, they did record business,” Booth said. “Eighty percent of their permits have now moved online, and plan review times are down nearly by half. Plan reviews for a single-family home went from seven days to three days.”

The shift to a cloud-based platform has saved the county about a quarter of a million dollars annually, thanks to the elimination of hardware, support costs, software licenses and maintenance.

A new day for data

A move to a civic platform ultimately empowers jurisdictions to do more with data, using their available information stores more effectively to drive policy and make informed decisions.

The business intelligence tool Accela Insights, for example, “…provides a lot of mechanisms for data visualization, dashboarding, reporting,” Wick said. In addition, an enhanced reporting database empowers operators to run queries without impacting their transactional systems. “Finally, prebuilt dashboards for our solution areas within civic applications make it easy to get data usage up and running extremely quickly.”

Leveraging the American Rescue Plan Act

Agencies looking to move in this direction have a unique opportunity today, with federal funds available to help them create more constituent-friendly experiences. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) makes tens of millions of dollars available for modernization.

Local leaders may have heard that their projects don’t qualify for ARPA funds, “but this is incorrect,” Booth said. “Your projects certainly do qualify.”

With a 2024 deadline looming to commit these funds, Booth urges civic leaders to act quickly, to get out ahead of a likely crush of last-minute proposals. “Don’t wait,” he said. “Ask the questions of your county executive, your budget officer. Ask to be included.”

In all of this, municipalities can turn to industry for support in navigating the complexities of civic modernization.

The vendor community has in-depth expertise in both software development and civic engagement, and can help accelerate IT efforts in support of enhanced civic processes. Accela for example has worked with large and small jurisdictions for over 20 years, “and we can provide that expertise to agencies that are embarking on their journeys, or wherever they are in those journeys,” Wick said.

For more information on how a unified govtech stack built on a modern cloud platform can help your agency, visit https://www.accela.com/enterprise.

About The Author

Since 1999 Accela has provided market-leading software solutions that empower state and local governments worldwide to build thriving communities, attract and grow businesses, and protect citizens. From planning, building, licensing and permitting, to asset and service request management, finance, environmental health and more, Accela’s SaaS offerings are designed to readily solve government’s biggest challenges with extensive domain expertise built into every solution. Powered by Microsoft Azure, Accela’s open and flexible workflow automation technology helps agencies address specific constituent needs today, while ensuring they are prepared for any emerging or complicated challenges in the future. Accela’s solutions serve more than 80 percent of America’s largest cities. Accela is headquartered in San Ramon, California, with additional offices around the world.

Read more from this author