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Digital Cities 2020: IT Foundation Key to COVID Response

The winners in this year’s Digital Cities survey have long been following well-laid plans for modernizing infrastructure, cybersecurity and citizen services, meaning they were prepared to stand up to the pandemic.

by , / November 10, 2020
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This year’s leaders in the Digital Cities survey from the Center for Digital Government* share some common characteristics. They were leading the way pre-pandemic, and were able to shift on the fly when COVID-19 struck.

All were already engaged in energetic modernization efforts. Some were upgrading enterprise systems or implementing digitals tools in support of citizen service. Others were revamping cybersecurity or finding new ways to leverage data in support of municipal needs.

Then they pivoted nimbly when the pandemic arrived. They supported remote work, and continued to deliver on the promise of citizen service, despite the radically changed circumstances. 

Danville, Va., 1ST PLACE, UP TO 75,000 POPULATION CATEGORY

Prior to the COVID outbreak, the city of Danville was already investing heavily in its security infrastructure, a move that put it in a strong position to respond to pandemic-driven needs.

“We invested quite a bit of time in new initiatives this past year around cybersecurity,” said CIO Inez Rodenburg. “We did a full risk assessment with an outside consultant who looked at our security posture, and we came out with some additional initiatives that we could implement. From there we conducted two tabletop exercises with our entire IT team and then we updated our cyberincident response plan.”

The city purchased a log and event management system in support of this effort, and IT worked in close collaboration with other stakeholders to drive systemic improvements. “We have involved our users and out city departments. They are very aware of our security plans and practices,” she said. “Having them on board makes it all a lot easier.”

IT leadership had also taken steps to reduce turnover, thus ensuring continuity of operations. A newly implemented career apprenticeship program “allows staff within our department to progress upward through their own initiative,” Rodenburg said.

“It includes on-the-job experience, credential requirements, ongoing evaluations and goal setting. It leads to increased pay and more responsibilities,” she said. “The hope is that we will keep more employees, improve morale and keep them learning.”

Such efforts, along with sound IT governance, helped to position the city well for the rapid shift to remote work.

“With the onset of COVID, we were in a really good position to immediately move our workers to working from home,” she said. “We had the policies in place, a work from home policy and a VPN policy. We already had the security in place. We had the hardware, with close to 100 laptops ready to go before COVID.”

Preparedness helped on the citizen services side as well. “We already had processes in place for taking payments remotely, and we expanded that across additional departments. Because we had something already in place, it took us only about a week to turn that one,” she said.

Early efforts in digital media helped position the IT team to support virtual city council meetings. “We do a lot with social media, so we already had a multimedia manager who live-streams council meetings to Facebook. Turning that into Zoom and streaming it live was pretty seamless for us,” she said.

To support such digital efforts going forward, Rodenburg leans heavily on stakeholder engagement. This is especially helpful in ensuring enterprise-wide compliance on emerging security protocols.

“We do a regular security report to the departments, a review of what is going on and what our future plans are,” she said. “We also involved them in the risk assessment, which helps them to feel vested and to feel engaged.”

Sugar Land, Texas, 1ST PLACE, 75,000-124,999 POPULATION CATEGORY

In Sugar Land, Texas, a transition to a modernized enterprise resource planning system was already in the works pre-COVID, and the city was able “Our biggest initiative this year was to replace our ERP system, our financial system for the whole city,” said Interim IT Director Brian Butscher.

Future Ready

The Future Ready Award is presented to a jurisdiction that is actively laying the foundation to address the disruptive and converging forces that are shaping an uncertain future. 

Lynchburg, Va. took a big step in that direction when it created a citywide plan for the years 2020-2024, spelling out 29 goals for the city. The IT strategic plan aligns with the citywide plan, to ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction. 

Forward-looking efforts include a collaborative approach to upgrading the network infrastructure, as well as a move to the cloud in support of enhanced data recovery. A focus on cybersecurity helps the city to stay ahead of the curve, with an Information Security Team meeting biweekly to address emerging issues. 

An emphasis on data, along with strategic partnerships, helps position Lynchburg for the future. By connecting community leaders and nonprofits to government data, the city already has made strides in addressing civic needs. This data-centric approach helps to solidify Lynchburg’s place as a future-ready jurisdiction. 

“We were an AS400 platform for at least 25 years. When you went to do a purchase order or a contract, you were on green screen,” he said. “We transitioned over to the Munis platform. It allows us to not only manage our financials in a much more robust and aggressive way, but also to run reports, develop service levels, and provide the critical data managers need to make decisions.”

The city had significant in-person training planned for the new system, and had to shift quickly when COVID arrived, putting in place training sessions via Microsoft Teams, Zoom and prerecorded video. “In spite of that we met our targets” and went live on Oct. 1 as planned, said Imelda Balane, Sugar Land’s information technology manager for applications. “The project teams really worked like a clock to meet all the deadlines.”

Last year the city also revamped an internal citywide landing page for employees, a move that helped make information more readily available during the onset of remote work.

“This is where we release news, where we keep all the documents and forms, all the policies,” Butscher said. “We converted that to a new form of SharePoint that improved the overall speed of the homepage by at least 40 percent. We worked with almost all the departments to revamp the way it looked, to make it more user friendly.”

That investment has paid off. “We have seen significantly increased traffic. People are actually using it now,” he said.

Prior to COVID, the city had no remote work, nor even a policy in support of it. All that had to be built from the ground up and the IT team took the lead. “We very deliberately went through each department to determine their needs: Who has a laptop, who needs one, what kind do they need? We also looked at the cybersecurity side, making sure we had the software in place to actually secure them in a remote setting,” Butscher said.

It took a coordinated internal effort to drive the transition. “We had training for the employees who needed it, but it starts one level higher, with management setting up the governance to make this all work,” Butscher said. “Our city manager and assistant city managers had to define what success would look like. They told us we needed to provide the same level of service to citizens as we were pre-COVID, and where we couldn’t do that, we had to have clear messaging about how that service level would be changing.”

Success depended on having, foremost, the right mindset. “We had to be willing to say yes to supporting new things,” Balane said. “When you are supporting essential services, you are in fact an essential service, and everyone in IT had that in mind.”

Going forward, the team is looking to develop a coordinated communications plan to support the city’s license plate readers, its dynamic traffic management system and wireless communications — a whole host of IT deployments physically situated outside of city hall. “We can’t just have everybody building their own communications infrastructure to meet their needs. We as IT need to be building that to support the whole city,” Butscher said.

Bellevue, Wash., 1ST PLACE, 125,000-249,999 POPULATION CATEGORY

High-level leadership has helped Bellevue, Wash., to earn its place among the forward-looking digital cities. “We are seriously lucky to have a strong council vision for a smart, innovative city. That really helps support a lot of the digital work across IT and throughout the enterprise,” said CIO Sabra Schneider.

That unified vision has yielded practical results, including the introduction of a smart water integration dashboard. “It enables water meter data alignment across multiple IT systems, for geographic information systems, asset management and work order systems, as the city works to replace 40,000 water meters as part of our smart water project,” she said. “The dashboard catches data quality issues and supports the rollout of smart water to drive business and operational systems.”

The city also has undertaken its first robotic process automation (RPA) pilot project. “It was a partnership with the city agency Development Services, which supports development across the city,” Schneider said.

“They are already paperless, and this year they were moving from an on-prem system to cloud. They were looking trying to move more than 2,500 active plan review sessions — by hand,” she said. “We worked in partnership with them to automate that work using robotic process automation, using software to program a bot to do the time- and labor-intensive tasks. It allowed this process of moving plan review applications to happen after hours and with a low error rate, with the bot doing the work and leaving development services staff free to continue serving the public.”

The IT team subsequently leveraged RPA in support of help desk trouble tickets, which doubled virtually overnight at the start of the COVID crisis.

“We wanted to see if we could put the most frequent help desk questions into a chatbot as a way to gain additional capacity,” she said. “Our digital government team partnered with folks across the city who were answering those front-line questions to launch a COVID-related chatbot first in English and a month later in five additional languages.”

In the early months of the crisis, “it was answering a lot of the questions that were happening the community, questions around Internet connectivity for students, around small business needs, around testing and public health data,” she said. "The city’s rapid, tech-driven response to the pandemic was largely the result of strong ties to industry and with other municipalities. “

Partnerships were incredibly helpful,” Schneider said. “We teamed with Microsoft to help with the chatbot, particularly the multilingual part of that. We also talked with the city of Seattle and they were tremendously helpful in sharing their experiences. Those engagements helped us to pivot our plans and to deliver as quickly as we did.”

Virginia Beach, Va., 1ST PLACE, 250,000-499,999 POPULATION CATEGORY

Data and artificial intelligence have been among the driving forces of IT modernization in Virginia Beach.

“We have worked with Waze to include city traffic data for citizens and visitors. We are using our own data and using it for real-time traffic monitoring and updates,” said CIO Peter Wallace. 

That effort will help the city to cope with next year’s Something in the Water, a five-day spring break event for college students that in a typical year draws a couple of hundred thousand people. “Our GIS team really took the ball and ran with it in an effort to ease traffic,” he said. “This is an annual event, and navigating traffic issues is one of the things we have to do well.” 

The IT team also has leveraged data analytics to drive more informed decisions. “We use it in the budget process, we use it in determining projects, and we use it to be citizen-centric, to ensure that the data citizens receive is what they are looking for,” he said. “To that end, we’ve been using more mobile apps to provide one-stop shopping for city information.” 

The city also has put AI to use. “We’ve incorporated it for how we route waste pickup, so citizens know every week when the truck is coming,” Wallace said. “We can say what parks are open at what time, when the libraries are open, what the activities are near you.” 

When it came to COVID, the city had a sort of trial run the previous spring. In May 2019, a shooting incident left 12 dead in a municipal building. In the aftermath, 400 employees had to be relocated as the FBI closed the building for forensic analysis. 

“It taught us to be very agile,” Wallace said. “It taught us how to work with our vendors to get new machines up and running, to get networks up and running quickly. It was almost like a pre-run for COVID.”

When the pandemic arrived and some 6,000 city employees shifted to remote work, “we were prepared to address that kind of event,” he said. “After the previous event, we wanted to be more agile, to provide service no matter where, so we moved a lot of stuff up to the cloud. We upgraded our VPNs and our network access so that everyone who had to work remotely could do so securely.” 

In the midst of the COVID crisis, a new ERP system went live in July. “The old system was over 20 years old, very manually driven,” he said. “Now things are much easier. We have a new procurement module, a new budget module, and it’s all integrated and transparent.” 

The key to making such big transitions without losing a beat? “It’s about being mindful of the digital transformation,” Wallace said. “We adapted to the digital way with an eye toward being citizen centric, providing the best services regardless of the situation. If you have that mindset, with support from the council, you can make things work.”

San Jose, Calif., 1ST PLACE, 500,000 OR MORE POPULATION CATEGORY

Coming out of a decade of deficits, San Jose put itself on a long-term strategic IT plan in 2017, and the past year saw those plans fall into place. 

“We were going to get healthy, win some key races, and then change the game to take on the changes in support of housing and homeless, of transportation design, of equity. That’s the arc we have been on,” said CIO Rob Lloyd. 

That transformation included a big CRM overhaul, which in turn has helped support new citizen engagement initiatives. “We wanted to be omnichannel, so the public can contact us by phone, email, website, mobile app or chatbot,” he said. 

The new CRM helped to foster those connections. “If you as a resident submit a case now, it goes directly to the work system that assigns the work in that department, directly to the people who are doing the work,” Lloyd said. “Now we are implementing language support for that. Once we complete the scale rollout, we will be able to support up to five languages, and the results of that in community testing have already been very positive.” 

The city also has made strides in citizen engagement by reconfiguring systems to route non-emergency calls from 911 to the 311 system. That eased pressure on the emergency line while still ensuring citizens had a simple pathway to access needed services.

The city also has invested in its cybersecurity infrastructure and has made other changes that helped it to pivot when the pandemic struck. “We were already building the foundations for a mobile and remote workforce, and we went from a two-year plan to executing in three weeks,” Lloyd said. 

“We partnered with Zoom and Microsoft to move our city contact center to work from home. Our emergency operations center went virtual in the first week. Then we sent everyone to work from home using these tools,” he said. 

The key to making such a rapid shift? It takes “a tremendously talented team of civic technologists, data geeks, fearless tinkerers and deeply committed public servants,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo. “Their collective work is a testament to the spirit of our innovative community, and I couldn't be more proud of how far we’ve come. We’ve got much more ahead, though, and we're not resting on any laurels.” 

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

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