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These days, our interactions are taking place mostly online. With the rise of Amazon Prime, Uber Eats, and other mainstream digital services, residents have become accustomed to simple, seamless, and engaging online experiences, 24/7. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend across all industries, including government. With agency staff working from home and the public health risks around visiting physical offices during the pandemic, it is more critical now than ever for governments to provide modern, intuitive digital experiences for residents.

I recently hosted a webinar with Accela called, “Empower Customer Self-Service Through a Unified Online Experience,” which explored why government leaders are increasingly focused on creating better automated systems that residents can easily navigate themselves. I had the opportunity to speak with Christine Binnicker, CIO for Technology Services at the City and County of Denver; Alan Howze, Assistant County Administrator and Chief Knowledge Officer of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County; and Kevin Goodwin, CTO at the City of San Antonio, on the importance of creating better digital portals and the role technology plays in building community engagement.

Our discussion was anchored around three guiding principles government leaders should focus on to create “consumer-like” government experiences:

  • Provide residents with the ability to find the information they need – It’s just as important for agencies to provide clear step-by-step processes as it is for any other website. Agencies should make sure that online licensing or permitting applications provide transparency into what each step looks like, including any information or documents required, application cost, how long the waiting period is, and any other essential information to set expectations for residents.
  • Manage the customer journey – In addition to providing transparency into the application process, agencies must have online services that are easy to navigate, lead users directly to their specific requests, and guide them all the way through to completion.
  • Empower residents to do more – Agency websites should give individuals the ability to pay fees, submit documents and drawings, and complete other key activities online, on any device, at any time of the day or night. This is essential to building trust between residents and government and expanding access to critical digital services.

Read on and learn how Denver, Kansas City, and San Antonio are planning to leverage tools such as Accela’s new Premium Citizen Experience powered by OpenCities.

Government Leaders on the Importance of User-Centered Government Experiences

Luke: Christine, with leading a vast IT organization like the City and County of Denver, obviously a lot falls on your plate. Can you share a little bit about what the pandemic has meant to your organization?

Christine: The interesting thing is that the pandemic accelerated what we already knew existed. So when we think about user experience, it was a nice-to-have and something I know the public sector and private sector strived for. In Denver, it became a must-have because we couldn’t have citizens come face-to-face. They had to have another option—an online experience. Budget is something we’re all struggling with, and after looking at how our budget aligned with our experiences, we couldn’t afford to have everybody coming to our counters even if it was safe to do so. The value of a less costly and easier-to-use experience was heightened and escalated during the pandemic.

Luke: Kevin, could you talk a little bit about what the process of standing up a COVID-19 response and recovery site with OpenCities looked like and its outcomes?

Kevin: When we got into the pandemic, there was an opportunity to pivot, because we had already understood the value of using things like service content types inside of OpenCities to make the services people needed discoverable and accessible. Understanding what poor access to city services meant gave us the traction we needed to demonstrate the value of OpenCities. I believe we had a viable product up in seven days. Within three weeks, we had a fully functional website that became the core access to information and services, beginning with the response and then pivoting into recovery from pandemic impacts.

Luke: You all have had a deep investment in Accela for a while. What does bringing the OpenCities piece into the Accela framework mean in terms of creating new opportunities?

Christine: The Accela partnership was the accelerant from our perspective. We had plans to look at new systems, and the Accela component became the catalyst we needed to move in this direction, largely because Accela Citizen Access drives a ton of traffic to our website. We have many residents, developers, and business people in Denver who leverage that component, so it was already one of our premier portals for doing business with Denver. OpenCities now opens up this standard in the platform to move that experience into hundreds of different city areas where we do business with the residents. The partnership with Accela allowed us to engage with our residents and brought the ability for us to now have a common front door vision.

Kevin: In the early 2000s, we were looking for an online experience to access the functions we’re now pivoting to Accela for. The focus at that time, using the available technology, was to provide kind of the web 1.0 experience, and we were a little bit ahead of the curve. When we moved to Accela, we were doing it for the second time. We went through a very deliberative process. The upfront work to deliver a truly great consumer experience was left on the table as something we would later get around to. We’re nearing the end of the deployment of the platform, and we’re at the point where we’re beginning to understand what it is going to take to deliver the next thing better than the last. Organizations of our scale didn’t always have that user experience layer built-in on the front-end. When we learned that OpenCities and Accela were partnering together, that became our first target. Having that horizontal piece that can sit on top of the vertical best-in-breed is the very empowering part.

Luke: Alan, you’re moving from an earlier version of Accela to Accela Version 20. Can you explain why you’re upgrading and moving to OpenCities at the same time, and how you got commission and administrator buy-in to double-down on doing these things simultaneously?

Alan: I think it’s a part-organizational story and part-customer experience story. In the organizational one, we moved towards an enterprise systems model and identified specific systems within our local government that we deemed as enterprise systems used by multiple departments, which we see as core to the operation. Accela is one of those. That identification shifted how we manage that software. Instead of being in the purview for upgrades and changes of one person in one department, it now has been elevated, and the decisions about the configuration in the upgrade and the infrastructure environment in which it sits are being made at the enterprise level. I think that has allowed us to engage a broader set of stakeholders and come through the modernization process with a different lens. Now, instead of saying “Okay, let’s hurry up and get this upgraded,” we’ve taken the opportunity to walk through it and shift processes and engage stakeholders methodically.

As we get ready to launch here in November, we have people who are excited about it, and they want to show it off to their customers because they’ve had a hand in creating it. That kind of organizational model is hand-in-hand with our project management methodology and our timeline for the upgrade. In this case, it’s also now aligning with our shift over to OpenCities as a web platform. It’s both serendipitous and exciting to think about what the next few months are going to hold for us.

Luke: What advice would you give the folks on the webinar today around how to prioritize user experience and how to secure the budget to do this work?

Christine: From my perspective, our mission in technology services in Denver is to improve city performance. You don’t hear the word technology in there at all. Technology for technology’s sake is a thing of the past. We are known for our mission and our strategies around innovation and access for our internal customers and for our residents, which is where user experience comes in. My advice would be to continue to move forward with those strategies, to continue to show the value, and to work closely with your partners, who have the expertise in that resident-facing component of your organization when we put this together and try to move it forward. Everyone in the city was excited because virtually almost everybody provided some kind of service back to the residents. So just making and showing that connection, I won’t say it was easy, but made it a lot easier than it could have been.

Alan: I think we emphasized and continue to emphasize with our elected leadership that investments in technology improvements and user experience again are not nice-to-have but provide people the services they need. People are accessing services from smartphones or other devices, so it’s really about meeting people where they are. We still have traditional brick and mortar service lanes available to people, but that’s not how people have chosen to conduct their business, so we now have several proof points in projects that we’ve implemented that have emphasized that kind of lesson. This created a confidence that I think has allowed us to continue to go back to the Commission with responsible investments that continue down that path. Success begets success when you’re doing technology projects. I’d say the other part is engaging employees and being determined to engage people, even if they don’t want to be involved and recognizing early on in some of these projects. You might not feel the love as much as you might feel years of pent up frustration that hasn’t had a way to be addressed. But by recognizing that and dealing with people in good faith, you can come out the other side with a set of internal champions and users who are not pushing against it but are embracing and utilizing it. That’s where you’re going to see the benefits kind of accrue for the residents and customers.

To learn more about how Accela’s Premium Citizen Experience powered by OpenCities can help agencies create more streamlined user experiences and better connect with their communities, visit here.

Luke Norris is the Managing Director of Strategy and Government Relations for OpenCities, a Kansas City and Melbourne, Australia-based government technology firm which enables governments of every size to deliver world-class digital experiences.

Christine Binnicker is the Deputy Chief Information Officer for Technology Services at the City and County of Denver. She is responsible for the operations of the department; more than 300 employees strong and with a budget of over $80 million.

Alan Howze is Assistant County Administrator and Chief Knowledge Officer of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County. Alan leads the Knowledge Department, Information Technology, 311 Call Center, Geospatial Services, and a Performance and Innovation team.

Kevin Goodwin is the Chief Technology Officer of the City of San Antonio, Texas. He currently helps to lead the seventh-largest city in the US to use more innovative technology.


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