College towns have always been sounding boards for social discourse, but not since the Vietnam War have they seen the number of politically charged demonstrations as ushered in by the presidency of Donald Trump. While a handful of these gatherings can be impromptu and problematic, most are conducted according to carefully prescribed permits, which allocate government resources to keep citizens safe.
As host to Cornell University and Ithaca College, the city of Ithaca, N.Y., previously issued an average of 30 special event permits per year for events that ranged from homecomings to gatherings that involved thousands of emotionally charged participants. In the past year, the number of special event permits has soared to 50.
Further complicating an already-complex city process, making changes to the special events requires recalibration of resources to ensure public safety. In January, for example, Ithaca’s postinaugural Women’s March grew several times beyond expectations, attracting more than 10,000 individuals. Just a few months prior, the city’s new Wizarding Weekend grew almost tenfold when word got out that the event had a “Harry Potter” theme.
Here at the city clerk’s office, we’ve found that social media has had a dramatic effect on the attendance of our special events. We’ve seen what once were considered ordinary events grow rapidly in size and scope, and we’ve had to react and reassign our resources quickly.
Fortunately Ithaca has automated most of the permit request process so that information is easily shared among all parties involved, and last-minute shifts can be quickly accommodated. The automation has been so successful that the same system is now being used to streamline municipal services citywide.
Previously, event organizers had to fill out a paper form to apply for a special event permit, then travel to City Hall to submit it. This information would be communicated to various departments responsible for crowd control, traffic, waste management and other needs via strings of emails. Event organizers were also required to meet face-to-face with the special events team at least once, a time-intensive step for all involved.
City officials previously coordinated details by manually entering data into Excel spreadsheets and electronic calendars, introducing the chance for human error to what we’ve found to be an already imperfect process. Retrieving data was also cumbersome, as duplicate documents were stored in various formats across multiple platforms. Additionally it was common for event organizers to mistakenly submit outdated or incomplete applications — frustrating both the event organizers and our staff.
In late 2015, we upgraded our IT platforms to include business process automation software by Laserfiche. After initial success automating the Freedom of Information Law request process, Ithaca began automating other key functions — including the special events permitting process — just in time for one of the most divisive presidential elections in U.S. history.
Senior Network Administrator Alan Karasin designed an electronic form that event organizers can now access via the city website. He also built a workflow that automatically routes the information from the submitted form to the relevant officials and departments for review.
City staff members involved can submit comments about the event; the system notifies the necessary personnel to address these comments and enables cross-departmental collaboration without duplication of documents. Throughout the process, automated emails keep the event organizer informed of their application’s progress. By our estimation, the entire process has been shortened by about a week on average.
Previously days and days of emails back and forth were exchanged on every application. We are now able to focus more on how the event is progressing, and if it changes in scope, we can more readily respond with changes to the permit requirements. This has made for considerable time savings while improving public service and safety.
Citizens can access the application around the clock, and the electronic form can only be submitted if complete, ensuring that our city officials receive the necessary information. Event organizers can even save drafts of electronic forms they have already filled out for use again at later dates.
The automated workflow eliminates much of the manual data entry and document routing required by the legacy process. Furthermore, because the process is completely digital, all documents and actions taken on them are archived electronically in accordance with state regulations. Having all of the information about who, when, where and why enables us to address and schedule each permit much faster.
Karasin has estimated that the new process saves the city $100,000 annually in staff time that can now be spent on more productive pursuits.
Automating public services like special event permits gives citizens the ability to serve themselves without spending hours at City Hall. The city of Ithaca can process more requests in less time, thereby serving more people.
It is likely that automation will be adopted by other departments for other processes as our city moves to digitally transform all of its operations.
Now, we feel, the departments that are automating business processes with the new system are better prepared in every facet of their operations. We’ve made many improvements in public safety and government transparency. In the next two or three years, I see huge strides in digital transformation across departments.