Sacramento, Calif., has joined the growing number of cities whose council agenda materials are completely electronic. How did the city do it? Officials shared a litany of useful tips on how to make the conversion, during a seminar Monday, April 4.

Chief among Sacramento’s strategy, according to Assistant City Clerk Dawn Bullwinkel, who led the project, was to move beyond the thought of just digitizing a paper product. The clerk’s office stepped back and took a close look at all work processes, identifying how they could be more efficient before moving forward.

“If you try to clone exactly what you do today, without shaking out the bugs, you won’t be as successful,” Bullwinkel said. “We stepped outside the norm and basically examined and re-engineered the way we do business. This didn’t require expensive equipment or tools, but did require an open mind and a brave heart.”

The presentation, called The Journey to Digital Delivery and Greater Transparency, was a preview of what will be shown by the city clerk’s office at next month’s International Institute of Municipal Clerks 2011 Annual Conference in Nashville, Tenn. The two-hour discussion covered best practices useful to other local government offices and agencies considering a digital approach.

Some of the key points included:

  • Digital delivery is not an IT initiative — own the process and partner with IT professionals.
  • Don’t worry about 100 percent consensus, it’ll never happen.
  • Have a clear vision and goals — why go digital?
  • Get buy-in from key stakeholders.
  • Start a pilot program — it’ll turn into practice.
  • Provide a digital product that users can’t live without.
  • Avoid feedback derailing.
  • Be available 24/7 for support.

Bullwinkel was adamant that 100 percent consensus about moving to digital delivery isn’t likely to happen. So instead of waiting, she stressed the importance of pushing forward and avoiding being derailed by naysayers.

“The biggest challenge is change management,” Bullwinkel explained. “If you want everything to be perfect you’ll never get ahead. Listen to feedback, but don’t get caught up in the negativity.”

Benefits Spurred Change

The Sacramento City Council went all-digital with its meeting materials in January 2010, providing hard copies of documents only for the public. The council uses an “ePacket,” which is a PDF containing all meeting documents. Council members retrieve the ePacket from a cloud-based service. In the meetings, the council uses a variety of tablet devices to read and annotate the materials, including the iPad.

“People need to understand that this isn’t something we’re doing to be hip on technology,” said Councilmember Steve Cohn in a prerecorded video interview. “We’re doing it to improve transparency, service and accessibility to the public.”

Although the city clerk’s office began moving toward digital documentation in 2005, it wasn’t until the City Council expressed an interest in exploring digital delivery in 2009 that the transition began in earnest. But once staff had that opening, Bullwinkel said they ran with it.

Change didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy. Cohn explained that former city Councilmember Robbie Waters, who was also a former Sacramento County sheriff, had never really used a computer when digital delivery was suggested. But after seeing the cost savings and benefits to the public, he realized it was detrimental to the public to hold back. Waters tried it.

“It takes a lot of courage and is a big risk because you’re bucking the mainstream,” added Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino. “We were old school in the city clerk’s office, and it wasn’t what our customers wanted.”

Establish Rapport

Bullwinkel added that an emphasis on building relationships with the city’s IT staff and a willingness to be accessible to council members helped the City Council overcome any hesitation about digital delivery of its agenda materials. She also focused on the necessity of empowering city council members, offering them an array of digital devices.

“When you retire your paper packets, don’t tell [council members] they have to use an iPad,” Bullwinkel cautioned. “Some people hate Apple, so you can say, ‘Our tablet of choice is the iPad, but we also have [these other devices].’ Hold a demo and start creating an environment where someone can choose.”

It didn’t hurt matters that the first device council members used was free. The assistant city clerk said the clerk’s office shifted its production fund that was being used for paper and distribution and bought each of the council members their first digital device, just to get the ball rolling.

Despite the success, Bullwinkel said the digital experience must be continually improved. She said weekly meetings are held just to see if there is something else the staff can do to provide a better product.

But one thing is for certain — she’d never go back to paper.

“If you can get through the mire, your life will be much easier,” Bullwinkel added.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y.