This article was authored by John Covey and originally published in the Alliance for Innovation’s Solutions Journal.
About John Covey Having worked in the technology field for the last 36 years, John currently serves as the Chief Information Officer in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. As a civic technologist, he supports ViewPoint in continuously improving ViewPoint Cloud, bringing modern permitting services to more forward-thinking local governments like the Town of Shrewsbury.
Using cloud-based software is standard practice for modern industries and most consumers, yet many local governments have still not fully understood and adopted this technology. That’s why we teamed up with the folks at ProudCity to talk about the benefits and best practices around adopting cloud-based software in local government.
Last month we sat down with Riverside, California’s Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing and Director of Community & Economic Development Rafael Guzman to talk about their strides in customer-facing technology. With an innovative ‘ecosystem’ of online services, Riverside, CA is a nationwide leader in providing customer-centric tools and platforms for their residents and visitors. Having spent many years working in smaller communities, Deesing and Guzman also share their insights for improving customer service and technological innovation without breaking the bank.
Last month, U.S. News & World Report released their newest project, the Best States Ranking 2017, grading all 50 U.S. states across 68 metrics in categories ranging from “healthcare” to “crime & corrections.”
As a federalist political system, the U.S. is an ongoing experiment in governance, with many states larger than entire countries. Report authors identified the shift in power from federal to state governments as a catalyst for focusing on individual state efficacy.
In 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner saw that while Chicago was a nation leader in government technology, the state as a whole was in the bottom fourth of the country for efficiency and customer service outcomes. This spurred the creation of Illinois’s “Smart State” initiative, a holistic approach to improving technology across the state and it’s local municipalities.
Many other towns, cities, counties, and states are seeing similar opportunities for collaboration on government technology projects. Instead of approaching projects in silos, forward-thinking public agencies are seeing the benefits of creating technology “eco-systems” that innately benefit from their connectivity across governments.
Technology is driving major changes in building departments, introducing a whole new way to build our world. Two technologies in particular–cloud-based platforms for storing and sharing data and building information modeling (BIM)–promise to change not only the way construction projects are designed, but also the processes of building officials responsible for approving them. As a result of changing technologies, building officials will soon need to become more tech-savvy in order to take full advantage of the benefits that these new technologies bring.
As any modern software sales team will tell you, the process of buying and implementing new software solutions has changed drastically over the last two decades; the roles have almost completely reversed. In an oversaturated market, buyers hold all the chips, and it’s up to vendors to take a more creative, consultative approach by helping their prospects find the best solution for their needs—even when that solution isn’t the one they’re offering.
Given this environment, the biggest obstacles to purchasing and implementing new software oftentimes arise internally—difficulties aligning expectations, needs, and processes between different departmental stakeholders. Although company websites explain software features, functionality, and benefits, it can still be difficult to identify which one is the best fit for your departments and community members. All of these stakeholders have their own considerations, as well as existing processes, which have many times been in places for years or decades.
As a key decision-maker in this process, you are likely tasked with bringing together these voices and finding the solution that encompasses the most needs. No pressure, right? We want to help. Drawing on over two decades of experience helping local governments, our sales, customer support and success, and implementation teams put together the most common concerns communities face when considering, purchasing, and implementing new software. Use these examples and strategies to guide you through the process, and if you’re experiencing something different, reach out to our team with your questions. We’re here to help!
Problem 1: “I’m having trouble getting buy-in from all the departments.”
What’s really the problem here? There are many stakeholders involved in the process of identifying and selecting new software. There’s also uncertainty about how day-to-day operations will change, potentially causing stress and resistance when trying to get all parties on board. Without having concrete examples in front of them, staff members may find it difficult to justify taking the time to learn how a new system could improve their processes, and in turn, create a better citizen experience.
How to solve it. Identify all stakeholders, from the Mayor to the City Clerk, and get them involved in the decision-making process. What are their concerns? What potentially excites them about the change? One way to bring together these voices is to put together a short 5-10 question survey, and have everyone complete it on their own time. That way, you can address concerns up front, and get an at-a-glance picture of available resources and motivations. Bringing stakeholders to the decision-making table will make them more invested in the success of a new project.
As for providing solid, empirical evidence on how process improvements might look and feel, make a day of it. One ViewPoint community set aside an entire day to weigh the pros and cons of all potential software vendors in succession. Their staff was able to make a difficult and abstract decision more manageable by having a centralized discussion, rather than trying to round up disjointed impressions gathered over several days or weeks.
On a similar note, don’t discount a vendor’s flexibility in scheduling time for a presentation. If their sales team can’t make time to help you find the best solution, it’s probably a good indication of what their customer service would be like post-sale.
Problem 2: “My community is already having trouble managing all of our requests, and this new system will only increase the amount of requests coming in.”
What’s really the problem here? This is a common concern among staff members when beginning the conversation about new software. While it’s true that once fully adopted, departments typically see an increase in requests, any software system worth your city’s investment will make processing these requests much easier. By centralizing information and removing the need to bounce physical documents between different departments, both the number of steps and time required to process requests are drastically reduced.
How to solve it. Bring up the issue with your sales representative. Given that this is such a frequent roadblock for those involved in the decision-making process, your rep will be more than happy to a) demonstrate how your workflow will improve within the software and b) provide real-life examples of other communities who were experiencing the same doubts, and were pleasantly surprised once they started analyzing results. Taking this evidence back to departments members who are doubting the process will help them realize their ability to improve operations. In comparison to the government software technology available 10 years ago, modern, cloud-based solutions offer the ability to facilitate greater efficiency at a lower cost, while achieving a higher level of citizen satisfaction—a win-win-win opportunity for forward-thinking municipalities.
Problem 3: “My department and I aren’t very tech savvy. We don’t want to lose control of our existing system by transitioning to a software solution.”
What’s really the problem here? Everybody, to some extent, fears change. People like what they know, and get comfortable with the way they operate. Any disruption to that can be perceived as threatening. A prime example is government reluctance to move from paper-based workflows to cloud computing solutions. Again, it’s important to remember that “not being tech savvy” and not wanting to “lose their existing systems” are distractions from the real problem—fear of change. Some staff members might resist new software because they don’t believe it will be able to replicate their current workflow—“the right way to do it” or “the way we’ve always done it”—in a digital format.
How to solve it. This is another concern that your sales rep should be well-prepared to handle. Have them demonstrate the flexibility and personalization of the software, and if possible, set up a pilot environment so staff members can play around with the interface. The ability to customize workflows will vary between different platforms, from very rigid to highly customizable—consider what makes most sense for your needs.
If breaking away from traditional processes is a major concern for you and your team, opting for a more malleable platform will be the best way for you to move forward with a given vendor. Using such a product allows your team to build their departments’ unique steps into the overall workflow, and alleviate any fears that moving to a software solution will severely disrupt their day-to-day work. Remember to keep team members informed of new changes as you move through the process. Change can be hard, but time, pilot environments, and the opportunity to discuss concerns will make the transition easier.
Problem 4: “Each department has it’s own process and no one is willing to change it.”
What’s really the problem here? It’s true. Each department does have it’s own processes, which can seem irreplaceable, having been honed for months or years. Whether these processes are the fastest, most efficient, and reliable way of getting things done is another topic entirely, and it’s the one that needs to be addressed when approaching this problem. However, department members may have been using the same systems for years, so relinquishing them can cause significant anxiety and frustration.
How to solve it. This is one of the most common frustrations for municipal departments implementing any new software, but solving the problem is actually quite easy. ViewPoint’s Client Success Manager, Valeria Amato, suggests scheduling a time for relevant departments (or department heads) to meet for a few hours as you lead the group in creating a process map.
First, ask each team member to write down every step of their portion of the workflow up until they hand it off to the next person.
Then write each individual step down on a separate post-it note and arrange them in order.
Finally, take each department’s bundle of post it notes and lay them out on a wall or a whiteboard from left to right (left being the beginning of the process, e.g. an applicant submitting a permit request and right being the end of the process, e.g. an applicant receiving their permit).
This gives all departments an opportunity to see an overview of internal processes, as well as identify inefficiencies, gaps, or redundancies. After this activity is completed, you can work together to create a process that makes more sense for everyone involved, and automate these new workflows in the software. Involving the entire team in this process is an integral piece to any successful software implementation.
Problem 5: “How will I show my team that the software is working and improving our processes?”
What’s really the problem here? Team members may have different metrics for evaluating the performance of new software. Keep in mind that some people may never be perfectly happy, but having measurable goals will help you and the rest of the team feel more confident in the value of the software.
How to solve it. Most modern software has reporting functionality. ViewPoint Cloud, for example, has robust analytics that allow customers to pull reports based on any field in their database. Pre-built reports will tell a high-level story of how many applications have been processed in a given time period, among other helpful metrics.
Even with these tools at your disposal, you still need to put in advance work to make sure you’re getting personalized value. Spend some time identifying how things have been done—how quickly, how many, and how often—so that you have a starting baseline. Then identify the most important metrics of success for each department (as well as the team as a whole). This pre-work doesn’t need to take long, but it will pay off when you start seeing the value of the software in numbers that are highly applicable to your team’s goals.
Problem 6: “We’ve spent all of this time setting up our solutions, and now we’re worried that our constituents aren’t going to use it.”
What’s really the problem here? When introducing new public-facing software to your community, citizen adaptation can be one of the biggest factors in a successful launch. Part of the issue here is that those who will be interfacing with your digital initiatives will have a wide range of potential uses. Contractors, for instance, come in many different forms; some are more tech savvy than others, and some have more capacity to learn how to use a new interface. As the team implementing new software, it’s your job to ensure constituents are on the same page. They are your customers, and as such, they deserve a user-friendly process.
How to solve it. The first step to getting constituents to use a new program is to ensure that you have a user-friendly, intuitive product. As the standards in the private sector increase, citizens expect better customer service from their governments. In order to keep up, forward-thinking municipalities are prioritizing customer-centric technology that’s easy to use internally and for the public.
With permitting software, for example, contractors are going to be the main user group. Most building department officials could easily identify “frequent flyers”—those contractors who are constantly in and out of City Hall. Why not hold a small focus group or send out a survey to understand their greatest pain points? Once you’ve set everything up, invite those contractors to come in and test-drive the software. To address ongoing concerns from new or less frequent users, consider offering a kiosk service, where someone in City Hall can speak with applicants, help them learn the new system and answer questions. Most importantly, forward-thinking municipalities remain in the mindset of continuously improving in order to provide high-quality citizen service.
As you can see, there are many important questions to consider when picking and implementing a new software solution. It’s important to remember that good communication and interdepartmental transparency are key in resolving each. You’ll be off to a great start by making sure you’ve outlined everyone’s visions and concerns, shared this information with your sales representative, and made sure to keep everyone involved at each step of the process. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to take on too much by yourself—government administration is a team sport after all, and the more you play together, the easier it becomes to do what you do best: providing your citizens with a level of government service that makes you proud.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep up to date in a world full of new technology, especially given the rapid advances in public sector applications. But technology is changing the way government works, from better customer-service to internet infrastructure to widespread collaboration on open source projects. That’s why we made this short guide for you (or someone you know) to brush up on IT concepts both old and new.
We live in an age of customer service. From your local grocery store to e-commerce giants like Zappos, today’s businesses are acutely concentrated on the ease and personalization of their customers’ experiences.
Having long been the norm in the private sector, this emphasis on customer-centric service is quickly becoming the new standard for local governments.
In the 1980s, the Internet began radically changing the world. However, it took time to grasp the magnitude of this revolution—first technologists, then businesses, then the public, and then governments.
In 2008, two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and widespread disintegration of trust in centralized financial institutions, blockchain was born.
Many describe blockchain as the biggest technological innovation since the Internet, and the revolution is already unfolding.
The question for the public sector now is, how are they going to learn from the advent of the Internet and e-commerce, and apply these lessons to revolutionary technologies like blockchain?
The first step is to look up and pay attention.
What is blockchain?
Before we understand blockchain, we must first understand its relation to digital ledgers.
A ledger is a record of transactions. Like any simple accounting ledger, it records what comes in and what goes out. In the hundreds of years that we’ve relied on ledgers, the underlying idea has changed very little, except that they are now digitized.
Yet ledgers—in essence, digital records—remain at the heart of governance, commerce, and any widespread, collaborative effort. With the rise of globalization and big data, ledgers have only become increasingly important—and problematic.
The biggest problem with standard ledgers is trust. How do can you verify the accuracy of the ledger? Of the people or organization responsible for maintaining it?
Blockchain is revolutionary, because it addresses this problem of trust.
Blockchain allows for a public, secure, authenticated ledger of any digital asset. It decentralizes data from the few to the many, removing the need for an intermediary, like a bank, to maintain the ledger.
Traditional ledgers are centralized, meaning one entity controls the data. Blockchain ledgers can be either completely decentralized (public can add data) or distributed (groups can add data).
At the heart of the technology is cryptology—using math to store and transmit data securely. Transmitting data cryptographically ensures that:
1) only the intended parties can view the data
2) the data cannot be altered without detection
3) relevant parties cannot deny their intention in sending or receiving the data
4) relevant parties can confirm each other’s identities and the origin and destination of the data
Blockchain itself is literally a ‘block’ of records uploaded to a digital database that uses cryptography to “chain” the data to the next block, and therefore the rest of the ledger.
Through this cryptographic process, blocks of data are authenticated by group consensus among whoever has been given access to the ledger.
The result is a virtually tamper-proof database being synchronized in almost real-time.
Blockchain is most famously known as the technology underlying the global digital currency bitcoin. Bitcoin is an application that uses blockchain, like email uses the Internet.
PayPal is a centralized payment network that unilaterally controls its ledger. We trust the ledger because of the brand and history established by the company.
Bitcoin is a decentralized payment network that we trust because of blockchain. Anyone can access the database, and at any one time there are over 6,000 computers updating the bitcoin ledger. All of these computers are simultaneously trying to solve a math problem, and once one computer solves the problem, it shares the answer across the network. If more than 50 percent of computers agree, the ‘block’ of transactions is added to the chain.
The algorithms undergirding blockchain make it a virtually hack-proof, permanent record. No one can change the ledger without a majority consensus of all computers on the network.
There are many different ways to set up these ledgers—the two most important factors being who can see the information and who can update it.
The bitcoin database is an “unpermissioned ledger”, which means it cannot be owned by any single person or organization. Anyone can potentially contribute to, access, or authenticate the database, and everyone has identical copies of the ledger.
Blockchain ledgers can also be “permissioned”, meaning they have one or more owners, and are not necessarily public. In this case, the blocks of data are authenticated by designated ‘trusted’ groups (e.g. banks or government departments), where everyone with access to the database can see the digital signatures of all other parties.
A “distributed ledger” is like an unpermissioned ledger in that anyone has access to the data, however only a designated group (usually widely dispersed to maintain trust) is entrusted with adding new records. One such example is Ripple, a global financial database public to anyone but only updated by selected financial institutions.
Proof of concept
In 2009, a Norwegian man bought the equivalent of $27 worth of bitcoin. He forgot about them only to find out four years later that they were worth $886,000.
At present, one bitcoin equals more than 13,000 USD, by far the most valuable currency in the world. This meteoric rise in value is a testament to the value of blockchain technology. Since its inception in 2009, the bitcoin ledger itself has never been hacked.
This level of security, scalability, and transparency is unparalleled.
And the uses of the technology are endless. Here are some of the ways it’s already being put to use:
Marketplaces.Ujo Music and Open Bazaar are online marketplaces that facilitate direct peer-to-peer transactions, removing the need for a middleman like Etsy or iTunes. Musicians using Ujo Music, for example, can sell music directly to their listeners. The Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) plans to completely replace their legacy software with blockchain technology.
Chain of supply. Blockchain technology can help authenticate the supply chain for products in special danger of tampering, like diamonds and pharmaceuticals. Using a distributer ledger, buyers can see and authenticate each step of the product’s journey, significantly reducing risk of things like counterfeit drugs and blood diamonds.
Smart contracts. What’s truly novel about blockchain is that you can build the rules of the database directly into the transaction, to be automatically executed. Therefore, one of the most useful applications of blockchain is smart contracts, which automatically enforce contract conditions through software code. This will drastically lower the cost of enforcing contracts and allow virtual strangers to engage in contracts with a high level of trust.
In a 2016 speech addressing the potential of blockchain for government use, UK Minister of Cabinet Office Matt Hancock said this:
“Blockchains – distributed ledgers, shared ledgers – are digital tools for building trust in data…government cannot bury its head in the sand and ignore new technologies as they emerge…The problem in 2010 was that the internet had, in the preceding years, become part of the fabric of the nation, but it was not part of the fabric of government. [Blockchain is] about changing the business model. Not just about doing the old things in new ways, but changing how we deliver for our customers: the citizens of this country.”
Technology-aware governments like the UK are leading the charge on researching the potential benefits and concerns of integrating blockchain into the public sector. They have learned enough from the transition to the Internet age to proactively pursue this technology, and governments around the world will benefit from their research.
The potential uses of blockchain in the public sector are numerous and transformative.
• Reduced cost of operations, including reducing fraud and error in payments
• Greater transparency of transactions between government agencies and citizens
• Greater financial inclusion of people currently on the fringes of the financial system
• Reduced costs of protecting citizens’ data while creating the possibility to share data between different entities, allowing for the creation of information marketplaces
• Protection of critical infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels etc
• Reduced market friction, making it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to interact with local and national authorities
• Promotion of innovation and economic growth possibilities for SMEs
More specifically, the technology could be applied to service areas such as collecting taxes, issuing benefits, issuing passports, recording land registries, and ensuring integrity of government records and services.
Estonia, for example, has successfully employed blockchain through the use of Keyless Signature Identifiers (KSIs) for many years. This has allowed them to dramatically expand e-government services, while maintaining a high level of efficiency and security.
However, governments are still approaching blockchain cautiously, as the technology remains underdeveloped. Both software applications and regulatory bodies will have to address issues of privacy, security, identity, and trust before the technology can be widespread.
For now, governments should focus on understanding the technology and bringing it into the public discourse. Pooling resources among govtech leaders and private sector partners will mean faster development and application of the technology, as well as more open communication and information sharing.
In this webinar, government permitting expert Jocelyn Mathiasen provides municipal managers with a guide to making permitting functions efficient, effective, and customer-friendly. While implementing new technology is an important element to improving permitting, governments must also focus on other areas, from streamlining processes to creating accountability across departments, for their technology investments to truly pay off.
You read that right – we’re a permitting solution referring to ePermitting as “low-hanging fruit”. Why? Because when it comes to high-impact, measurable, and scalable improvements to your municipality’s digital presence, ePermitting is like training wheels. Whether you’re a team of one managing countless moving parts, or a local government who hasn’t yet heavily invested in your online presence, it’s time to consider ePermitting. It’s time to consider giving a little, in return for a lot.
In 2015 and 2017, the planning magazine Planetizenreleased reports overviewing the results of surveys benchmarking “the use of technology in city planning departments across the United States.” The data is meant help municipalities gauge the nationwide trends of their peers and plan for how new technology will affect planning departments in the upcoming years. This infographic highlights some of the major findings in the 2017 report (based on a 2016 survey) and how they compare to the 2015 report (based on a 2014 survey). See below for the full reports and more about the authors.
The first of our Year of the Citizen webinars, Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole and New Urban Mechanics Co-founder Nigel Jacob joined us for a conversation about how to approach “customer service” in 21st century local government. Drawing on their personal experiences in the civic tech hubs Santa Monica and Boston, Cole and Jacob share their practical philosophies for how to bring innovative, customer-centric technology to local government—even those with few resources to spare. Touching on several audience questions, they also share practical strategies for viewers to start implementing in their own communities today.
With rigid budgets and procurement processes, local governments sometimes have to wait years to upgrade their technology. Luckily, with a world of developers and creative ideas, there’s a whole market of free software tools at our fingertips. From designing more engaging social media posts to better intra-office communication, these easy-to-use tools can be integrated into your regular workflow without spending a dime. To help you do this, we’ve rounded up a list of 10 free tools your local government can use to start working more productively and creatively right now.