How to Bust the Myth That Local Governments are Outdated

Written by Jennifer Elliott

Increase revenue, improve staff workflows, and enhance civic experiences with an integrated software stack purpose-built to make civic management and conducting business easier.
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Unfortunately, the public opinion of local governments often includes complaints about dealing with unsophisticated systems and relying on paper forms and postage to do business—like it's still 1995. At a time when you can tweet a pizza order, earn an advanced degree without ever stepping into a classroom, and apply for jobs from a mobile phone, when residents feel like it's too hard to do business with their local government, they simply won't engage. As a result, local governments miss opportunities for revenue and civic participation.

If a pet owner has to print a form, write a check, and physically hand it all into an office to register their pet with their county, they simply won’t bother, which means the county misses out on revenue. If members of your community have to drive across town to sit in on a public meeting about a new development project to hear what's going on and share feedback and ideas, they won't bother. However, with an integrated software stack purpose-built to make civic management and conducting business easier, local governments can increase revenue and improve staff workflows.

Recognizing Positive Civic Experience

CivicPlus® recently held our Civic Experience Awards to recognize and honor local government departments and teams improving civic experiences in their communities. The winning communities are leveraging modern technology, making it easy for residents to do business online through self-service tools and creative initiatives, increasing revenue and building trust and engagement among their residents.

The stories we heard from their submissions are inspiring and prove that residents who assume they’ll need to follow paper-based processes to do business with their municipality owe them a second chance to positively impact their modern-day progress. Here are just some of the stories we heard from our award applicants.

Stearns County, Minnesota

"In the shadow of a global pandemic, with widespread lockdowns and closed government offices, it was more important than ever that Stearns County empower our community by providing information and services to more residents in more ways," said Digital Services Manager, Jennifer Burger. Stearns County needed to update processes and improve efficiencies for County staff to continue to serve the public. Over the last two years, Stearns has launched a suite of digital services to help the county achieve its objectives and improve its community's civic experience.

Stearns County's digital software stack includes a CivicPlus municipal website with an AudioEye integration, the CivicPlus Chatbot[1], No Wait Inside, an appointment scheduling service, and CivicOptimize® Productivity.

"These various digital services work collectively to inform and empower residents while also improving staff's ability to serve them," said Burger.

Stearns County's website is more secure than its previous site, so visitors can browse and interact safely with it. The various content types and widgets provide more options for publishing content that gets attention and keeps visitors engaged and informed.

"Over 50 percent of our audience is on a mobile device. The mobile-friendly design allows the site to be easily used on more devices, something our old site lacked," Burger explained. In 2021, its site was viewed over two million times.

"Sharing critical and frequently-changing COVID-19 information was quick work thanks to features like our homepage alert box, easy-to-use content editor, and the ability to embed a COVID statistics dashboard," said Burger.

It was important for Stearns County to have an accessible website, so its leaders partnered with AudioEye.

"Having an accessible website, and confirming it stays that way with AudioEye, means that more residents can use the site to receive the information and services they need," Burger explained. "Whether someone utilizes assistive technologies, has color-blindness issues, or just understands content better when it's presented a certain way, AudioEye helps us provide access to all visitors. When issues are detected, AudioEye automatically fixes them, saving staff time and resources."

Since Stearns County launched its CivicPlus Chatbot last summer, the automated chatbot has received over 10,000 questions with a nearly 73 percent self-service resolution rate.

"That has reduced County staff time and effort in those areas, with an estimated cost-savings of over $27,000. And when staff are freed up from answering those inquiries, they are available to assist other residents," said Burger.

"Client safety and satisfaction have improved with the implementation of No Wait Inside's online 24/7 scheduling software," said Burger. "Clients schedule when convenient for them, and it allows immediate service upon entering the building. Since each appointment identifies the reason for the visit, staff can prepare and provide better service." Stearns County reported that in 2021, scheduled appointments increased 41% from 2020, with a monthly average of 1,733 appointments.

Online forms with CivicOptimize Productivity have allowed residents to do hundreds of transactions with our offices, even when the buildings are closed and in-person service is restricted.

"It allows residents to easily and securely submit information and requests to our various departments," said Burger.

With an improved solution stack, Stearns County is improving staff workflows and increasing positive civic experiences in its community.

"These various digital services work collectively to inform and empower residents while improving staff's ability to serve them," Burger explained.

Rock Hill, South Carolina

“Inside Rock Hill” is a 10-week civics course offered twice yearly to Rock Hill, South Carolina residents. It offers a look inside the world of municipal government, empowering residents to understand its inner workings and serve as ambassadors and future leaders for the City. Until 2020, the program was in-person.

“Both due to COVID and a desire to reach a broader demographic, we started a virtual spring semester, keeping residents safe and allowing younger future leaders to participate around their busy schedules,” said Rock Hill Administrative Coordinator, Karen Koterba.

Since its inception, the program’s graduates have lauded the program. Historically, participants have skewed overwhelmingly to an older, empty-nest, and retired crowd. This left out a large group of young people that worked in Charlotte and parents that couldn’t commit to 10 evenings away during dinner hours.

“Because the program was always full well in advance, we were hesitant to change course. The pandemic provided us the opportunity to try a virtual semester and found it completely changed who was participating,” Koterba explained.

The program is in large part “show and tell.” Departments explain their work and show the equipment used to do it. Not being in person meant no trying on fire equipment, no bucket truck, or a tour of our electric busses. Departments were tasked with forming a way to impart knowledge and still create an engaged citizenry. Departments recorded portions of their programs ahead of time that would create logistical challenges and did the rest live to keep it engaging.

“Rock Hill believes that an engaged citizenry is vital to our success,” Koterba explained. “In a pandemic, it’s justifiable to postpone programs. Instead, we consider this an opportunity to try something new with a longstanding program and expand our reach.”

Rock Hill’s strategic plan is all about “Serving, Engaging, and Growing.”

“That is exactly what we are doing when we continue a program in a pandemic in a way that reaches new audiences,” said Koterba.

Chesterfield, Virginia

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, county leadership quickly recognized the need to provide financial assistance to residents and businesses impacted by the record economic downturn and unemployment rates.

"As part of a similar response to improve resident experiences by moving in-person services online, the division of eGovernment Services made investments to bolster our web platforms by integrating new interactive forms of technology and developing solutions to enhance the new support programs in the form of financial relief applications for water and wastewater customers who had fallen behind on utility bill payments," said Chesterfield County eGovernment Lead Web Developer, Chris Coleman.

The COVID-19 Water/Wastewater Assistance Program was conceptualized, developed, and deployed entirely by internal eGovernment Services staff by leveraging Cognito Forms, its existing CivicEngage content management system, and innovative application of newer enterprise tools within its Microsoft 365 ecosystem.

"The form is seamlessly embedded into our CivicEngage content management system for citizens to interact with. As a form entry is submitted, it triggers a webhook that captures the data through PowerAutomate, and maps the fields into a protected Excel Spreadsheet in SharePoint, where the Utilities staff reviews and updates statuses for each application. As applications are reviewed and approved, notifications are automatically triggered back to the citizen, instantly notifying them of their status and financial relief," Coleman explained.

A major priority when architecting the application was to ensure that the experience was inclusive to as many residents as possible. Early on, Chesterfield prioritized the development of a Spanish version of this application, which it had manually translated through its Office of Multicultural Services by building an integrated conditional Spanish track into the form. It was also important for older residents who may not be technology-savvy to be able to call Chesterfield Utilities Office and apply for this program over the phone, which was integrated into the same application by having it switch to a "helper mode" when staff completes on behalf of a customer, slightly altering certain field criteria. The application was built mobile-first to be easily accessible from any device—in fact, 68 percent of all web traffic to this program was from a mobile device or tablet.

The COVID-19 Water/Wastewater Assistance Program was a model for a positive resident experience, executed through the use of many technologies that supported each other to drive automation and efficiency and deliver impactful benefits to Chesterfield residents when they needed it most.

"Nearly 4,800 households in Chesterfield County applied for the COVID-19 Water/Wastewater Assistance Program since the program launched in October 2020. Of those applications, 4,000 met the criteria for utility bill relief, bringing those families and businesses completely out of arrearage. In total, Chesterfield County administered over $1.4 million in relief with the COVID-19 Water/Wasterwater Assistance Program. Funding for this program ran out on Aug. 4, 2021, almost three months before the program was scheduled to expire," Coleman explained."The COVID-19 Water/Wastewater Assistance Program was so successful that it has become a template for dozens of new forms, workflows, and online processes created since the start of COVID-19. Our team has gone on to develop dozens of other forms and online workflows in the past year, totaling over 100,000 submissions for services ranging from virtual public comments to vaccine scheduling and administration. The efficiencies that we are able to accomplish with these technologies are empowering our citizens to engage with us from home, increasing safety by keeping lines in our offices short or non-existent."

[1] CivicPlus Chatbot is powered by Frase