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Experts Weigh in on the Urgency and Potential of Digital Services.

Over the course of the past year, many of us have heard about the importance of investing in digital infrastructure. COVID-19 has accelerated the need to bring many essential processes online, across all industries. But what does that really mean when it comes to government — which has only just scratched the surface of its digital potential — and how do agencies practically go about building a digital infrastructure that better serves all residents?

This week, I joined agency leaders virtually from Florida state and local governments as moderator of our keynote panel discussion at the Govern the Future Academy (GTFA), Accela’s new state-focused event series produced in collaboration with Microsoft. Panelists included Matt Broffman, Director of Innovation at the City of Orlando; Nelson Munn, Director of State and Local Government at Microsoft; Luke Norris, Managing Director at OpenCities; and Cathy Grossi, Vice President of Product Management at Accela, who together offered their unique perspectives on how to build more connected communities through technology. We discussed how government staff can increase trust, revenue, efficiency and agility by leveraging data, resident-centered online portals, and shared insights across agencies.

Read on and learn more about using the power of digital to foster a more effective relationship between — and among — agencies and communities.

Heidi: From your perspective, how can we reimagine the future of great governance with connected government? What’s one initiative you’re working on right now that supports that?

Matt: Often, in government, we tend to think a lot about our internal processes and how to automate and streamline those, but the end goal should be to help our residents. Thinking about what that resident needs is what they want you to know. They’ve done the research and are coming with this information, and we’ve got to anticipate that understanding and empathize with that. The other piece, which is also what we’re engaged in at Atlanta and different from the digitization work, is measuring trust. One of the things we’re excited about is taking this idea of a connected digital government and showing the value back to the organization, back to building trust with residents.

Luke: I am excited about work that we’re doing with the city of Gainesville, Florida. They’ve recently committed to rebuilding a digital front door to help serve all of their residents in the city equitably. This is an opportunity to provide a digital front door that allows their residents to connect with multiple systems to serve all their neighbors. So we’re doing some of the work on the front end to create this cohesive user experience.

Cathy: I focus on data and analytics, and I think it’s crucial, because a connected government and a collaborative government has transparency with their citizens and across agencies. I’m excited to start seeing how we can take data and information and provide access to citizens and other agencies to become more customer-centric in how they service their customers.

Nelson: Conversations are changing among our customers. They are now talking about constituent services versus data centers, servers, and cloud to understand how they can take and offer these services to provide meaningful value to their constituents.

Heidi: How can “connected government” better serve customers now amid the pandemic and longer term?

Luke: We have to understand how citizens are interacting and want to interact. Not only do residents want to do more things digitally, but the government should provide more of those things digitally. There are going to be new opportunities for us to understand what those patterns and needs are. I always try to help folks answer the question, “how do you understand how people are interacting today?” Sometimes, that’s not only as good as your Google analytics, but it’s also looking at your 311 call data and walk-in traffic data, then analyzing those with your web data. Once you have that data, there is an opportunity to provide unique user experiences.

Cathy: Having standard processes and data accelerates these customer services, especially if we can share that information across agencies. We should already be able to make that a seamless experience for residents across departments and agencies with all needed information. We should be able to push even further in these customer experiences across agencies if we can really connect the government and the data that it’s running on.

Heidi: How can connected government help agencies be more agile at a time when change is happening at a rapid pace and speed and agility need to be built into the DNA of every government department and agency?

Nelson: When I served as CIO, 70% of our resources went to just keeping the lights on, and 30% went to innovation, but we were slow to get things done. You’ve seen that shift – IT is changing. The good news is IT is at the business table, but the bad news is you’re at the business table, and you’ve got to move quickly. What I think technology partners bring to an IT organization is taking on that operational piece and building it so that it is easy for the customer to get off the ground and convert that time to 70% innovation. Our customers don’t have unlimited resources and we, as technology providers, are best equipped to provide them the tools to make those changes and implement those systems quickly.

Luke: One of the things that COVID has undoubtedly shown us is that we need to start investing in digital as a part of the core infrastructure. As much as we think that is happening, it’s not happening at a commensurate level. The investments that are getting made based on the predominance of digital are still low. How you make sure that you’re investing in the right technology is something I think that Nelson pointed to and one of the ways we’ve seen this work. We’ve started to see governments investing in new technology, whether it’s open-source or other commercial off-the-shelf solutions. They’re starting from scratch and creating these brand new experiences.

Matt: Having these tools ready to apply to any challenge quickly and then iterate as needed is another aspect governments need to work on. There has to be an acknowledgment of how different this is from how you usually do business — in IT, government, and in general. We don’t build a road and hope that it will change if it needs to change later. We spend years planning. But when technology isn’t right, we can create an instant change. We need to use these tools and make changes as we go. I’d rather see cities put something out and get feedback from residents.

Heidi: Let’s talk more about that. We also know that efficiency is what allows governments to continue to operate, serve, and respond, despite the tighter budgets, reduced revenues, and fewer staff. How can connected government help create those efficiencies?

Matt: Staff from different cities and counties have the primary focus of community engagement. I recently had the pleasure of joining staff members for a conversation about digital government. Everybody in the exercise thought that digital government wouldn’t work since there is this assumption that digital government is meant to be 100% digital with no human support behind it. But in reality, it is about taking the things that staff and people don’t need to handle, such as answering questions that could be easily found on a website today. Digital government isn’t about replacing staff. It’s about freeing staff up.

I think there’s so much opportunity when it comes to engaging our residents. If our staff didn’t need fifteen people on our permitting team answering phones, imagine what those fifteen staff members could do if they were out in the community working with our residents. I think that’s the shift of digital government – we want to offload the things a computer could, quite honestly, handle better. This will allow us to interact more on the sensitive topics, and topics that really need that human care and management. I think we have to say that as loudly as possible so that our staff aren’t scared of digital government: It’s not about replacing staff, it’s about freeing staff up.

Cathy: Besides creating efficiencies, digital government also opens up opportunities to capture additional revenue. For example, you can get permits done quicker, allowing you to secure revenue and fee collection more quickly. With today’s tight budgets, it also might allow you to have new service categories of revenue. For example, virtual inspections could be a whole different revenue stream that wasn’t there before, and the digital platform allows you to go out and create these new services.

Nelson: I haven’t met a customer yet who has more budget than he or she knows how to spend. With budget shortfalls, people are being asked to do more complex work with less revenue and less funding. Whatever we can do to provide tools and infrastructure that are prebuilt, the better. Why recreate the fast, agile, and flexible wheel? Instead, focus on what matters – this is what we’ve been talking about with regard to providing those additional services.

Luke: We had a client that was able to take about a $50,000 investment in a new kind of web technology and turn it into about $650,000 in annual efficiencies. They did this because of a rapid prototype that took about four weeks to build and then measure. They invested in a new platform made out of about six of their top services, and some were highly utilized, but staff never honestly thought of it as a service. For example, there was a process to apply to have your water started or stopped at a new residence. Previously they generated 15,000 pieces of paper every year because they either had to be walked in or they had to be faxed in. By turning that into an electronic service in a three-month window, they started to see that they were driving about an 80% reduction in walk-in traffic — and these are pre-COVID numbers. They’ve modernized many ways that they make payments and the process to support permits. They’ve now rebuilt 235 of those services, and across those, they’ve consistently modeled about a 20% reduction in walk-in traffic pre-COVID as the net effect of that $50,000 investment.

Heidi: Now for a tough but pressing code for government to crack — especially now: building or rebuilding trust with your constituents. The troika of crises of the pandemic, polarization and economic instability have challenged local governments, but they’re also offering local governments an opportunity to build that trust with their communities. What are you seeing?

Nelson: I think that we as a vendor to any government can play a part in rebuilding that trust and having that trust with their constituents. From a Microsoft perspective, we secure from the endpoint to the backup in Azure, because that’s one of those things we don’t want a customer to have to worry about. That’s one less item for our partners and customers to worry about, so we take that part of our offerings very seriously. Part of it is just access. Are we providing the kind of services that people want and need, making it easy for them to consume those services easily? That’s the good thing about what we see now, and there’s more of that happening.

Cathy: Building on that point, trust is about transparency, so it’s how much data you can share with your citizens, so they understand. For example, if you may not like the turn time on your remodel permits, but you can tell your constituents it takes three weeks and you can meet that timeline, they’re going to feel good that they understand you and understand how long it takes to process a permit. That can be done with data and just bringing it to the forefront so that citizens understand what’s going on in government operations.

Luke: The data pieces are critical and always come back to the user. Who is the user, how do you take a user-centered view, and what are the user’s needs? I think COVID and the drive for digital and for a hyper amount of information that residents are looking for spells this out as a need, more than ever. I think vendors must come to the table, helping inform cities and counties and states about what we know across a broader spectrum. Think about the volume of scientific or specific information that you’re putting out. How small businesses can apply for federal funding or PPP types of programs is dense content that also needs to be clarified, but you need to understand who that user is and make sure that you’re writing that content correctly. Suppose marginalized members of your community are predominantly visiting those government sites on a mobile device. In that case, you need to make sure that that content is even more precise, sharper, more specific, because people don’t have the time to scroll.

The second piece, then, is how do you design that content informed on those user needs? How do you create these experiences that allow people to go to the correct content as quickly as possible? That data guides people to that content as soon as possible, and I think that’s one of the ways that you can increase that trust and transparency as well.

Matt: You could look at almost any study that’s out there, and the number one way to grow and increase trust in government is to provide adequate services. The flip side of that is to ensure the government is engaged but not providing a good experience that is hurting us. A good example is when our parks reservation team would manually follow up with people and call them back after they requested a reservation. People found it frustrating because they’re going online to make a reservation but receiving a phone call back. Fixing processes like this allowed for an increase in the satisfaction of that service by 50%.

Heidi: The benefits are super clear that a connected government can improve service agility efficiency and trust, but how can we go about and help governments make that happen and quickly? What would be the first step that you would recommend?

Cathy: It’s pretty simple; just get started. This doesn’t have to be a big project. Find something small to solve and start there and work your way up. Look at your progress. Look at the trends and then iterate as you go, because it’s not an end game in your digital transformation. It’s going to continue, so you know what the evolution is. A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, so my advice would be just to get started.

Luke: I agree. I think that idea of starting small is correct and sets you up for an opportunity to establish a quick win. It is the chance to move with more of that speed and agility that we talked about, and if it goes well, it helps you set up a process for how to do it at scale, so I think that exactly is the right way to start. Ensure you start with the user’s needs and make sure that you’re not biased by what you feel is right.

Matt: We started with 13 services on the website and now have over 300. The best way to start is to open Excel and create a table of your services. Most of us don’t have a list of our services and lose points from the resident standpoint. For example, if you report a pothole, you will have arguments with your street team about whether or not it’s a pothole, but at the end of the day, it’s what the resident says. Start your list and think about it from a resident’s perspective.

Heidi: Whenever you introduce new processes, goals, vantage points and lenses, it’s a huge change management exercise for those internally, as well as the residents. People can actually resist and preempt a well laid plan from achieving its goals. How do you reassure others?

Matt: Focusing on the “why” and not being distracted by the shiny objects. If somebody can’t easily report that pothole online, it doesn’t matter what chatbot you have or what service you’ve integrated with. Help the elected officials understand that, because every elected official wants to get up there and say we have a new integration or app. Still, they’re not necessarily concerned about the announcement of the details behind that app. Give them that focus that says we’re creating this new feature versus an entire digital city hall.

Cathy: You need to show the users what the benefit is and what’s in it for them. Then, you need to be able to track that using data, surveys, or insights from their experience after you implemented the change, so that they know you’ve done something meaningful for both your employees and community.

Heidi: Can you please share your parting advice to those in the audience to take those first steps toward connected government and yielding all the benefits?

Luke: Make sure that you always approach this as kind of a three-legged stool, and the person that’s going to sit on that stool is your user. You need to have the right technology, the right processes, and you have to have the right people to hold up those user needs right. If you invest in the wrong technology, it will sometimes enable flawed processes that create the wrong people behaviors; if you leverage the wrong people behaviors, you’re going to keep ending up with the lousy process that ends up with the wrong technology. Look at that intersection of what those users need and make sure that you build the right strategies backed by the right people’s behaviors.

Nelson: Look at the people in your area and learn from each other. Use your partners. We always want to be a strategic partner and bring all the resources we need to the table to help you get things started like this, and I know it’s all in OpenCities as well, so use your entire village to get off the ground.

Cathy: Start small as we talked about, aiming for a continual improvement process. This transformation is not going to be perfect, but keep iterating, getting better, tracking your data, getting your KPIs out there. If you need to, change them, and make data transparent so that everyone can see where your movements are and how to move forward on the digital transformation continually.

Matt: Find those places where you’re wanted and where you will find challenges. Making this change and giving yourself that flexibility is going to make you successful.

If you are interested in watching the full keynote panel or viewing other content from the Govern the Future Academy in Florida, you can access by registering here. All content will be available for download through March 2021.

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