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Government Experience Awards 2020: Government Goes Virtual

In the fourth annual Government Experience Awards, winning jurisdictions proved that in the face of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to bring vital services to communities with innovative digital tools.

by / September 24, 2020

COVID-19 has proved to be a good barometer of state and local governments’ ability to engage with and inform citizens, and never has providing online services been more important. That makes this year’s Government Experience Awards, an annual program from the Center for Digital Government,* even more significant than usual. The award program is designed to recognize the achievements and overall best practices of government agencies that have gone to the Web and beyond to radically improve the experience of government and push the boundaries of how services are delivered. 

 

Winners this year deploy an array of channels with associated application programming interfaces (APIs) that provide deep data integration with operations to ensure they are providing up-to-date information. With broader channel toolboxes for the development of consistent citizen experience across all agencies, these governments continued to serve citizens well even though they were forced to close their physical doors.

Mississippi — First Place in the State Category

Over the past several years, Mississippi has developed an impressive array of citizen communication channels ranging from chatbots and push notifications to mobile applications that allow for online license renewals. Taking advantage of APIs ensures that the state is providing citizens up-to-date and relevant information, and that has proven valuable during the pandemic. These channels have been developed with a deliberate strategy and close partnerships with state agencies, said Michele Blocker, interim executive director of the state Department of Information Technology Services. 

2020 Future Ready Awards

This year's Future Ready Awards are presented to jurisdictions whose initiatives are paving the way toward new public-sector innovations in an uncertain world.

Mississippi MISSI Chatbot

In addition to winning an overall Government Experience award, Mississippi is also a Future Ready winner for its MISSI chatbot. The first state to deploy a statewide website chatbot, Mississippi continues to enhance the chatbot and expand its services to multiple state and local government agencies. It currently supports 400 kinds of interactions.

MISSI is integrated into the ms.gov design, serving users immediately upon every site visit, no matter the device. The new experience of this popular support service has led to over 75,000 chat interactions with citizens.

Here is an example of how it works: Individuals searching for unclaimed property can simply let MISSI perform the search and return information about any outstanding and unclaimed funds directly in the chat interface. Additional future implementations will include completing driver's license exam appointments directly within MISSI.

“The use of MISSI after COVID jumped way up,” said Michele Blocker, interim executive director of the state Department of Information Technology Services. "People went on ms.gov to get pandemic information and as she answers, she always ends by saying, 'Is there anything else I can help with, such as renew a driver’s license?' Then it occurs to them that there are other things they could get help with."

El Paso’s EPStrong

On Aug. 3, 2019, the tragic shooting at a local Walmart that took many lives devastated the El Paso, Texas, community. The city government quickly set up its epstrong.org website to provide information to the community, the press and local partners. In early March 2020 when the pandemic struck, city leaders realized they could use the same webpage for current updates with COVID-19-related information. The GIS team partnered with the Health Department, local hospitals, El Paso County, and many other jurisdictions to develop a local dashboard with daily COVID-19 data for the entire El Paso Metroplex.  

Orange County, Fla., Property Appraiser’s Projects
 
The Orange County, Fla., Property Appraiser's office (OCPA) kicked off the new decade by deploying an array of new citizen-centric applications, including a field appraiser survey tool (F.A.S.T.) and a website chatbot that use artificial intelligence to serve constituents digitally. OCPA also developed a mobile app, a robust social media presence to communicate directly with taxpayers and an interactive website.

F.A.S.T., OCPA's new customer service survey tool, employs Microsoft Cognitive Services, Azure Cloud deployment, and Twilio API for SMS-based workflow and communication. It offers field appraisers a convenient way to collect feedback on staff conducting field appraisals. This feedback is analyzed using emotional intelligence technology, flagging keywords or terms that it deems as highly positive or negative.

The “Ask Rick” chatbot has engaged in 9,100 conversations since late 2019. It uses AI-based conversational analysis to engage with constituents and alert trained staff when a complex request is beyond the scope of its capability. These new technologies are allowing OCPA to better assist and communicate with constituents across multiple platforms.

A perfect example is the state’s digital Hunting/Fishing Mobile Application, which allows users to purchase and store all available licenses on their mobile device, eliminating the need to carry hard copies. Users can opt in for an auto-renewal process upon purchasing a new license, and their eligible licenses will automatically and securely renew before their set annual expiration date. 

“We work closely with agencies such as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks,” Blocker said. “We wanted to make sure people have the ability to purchase licenses on their mobile phone without even having to be at a computer. We paid close attention to which features are used the most and then focused on creating applications and interfaces around those.” 

Central to the state’s strategy was developing a simplified Web presence with a mobile-first strategy. The state's user experience team uses a universal design approach — considering the needs of users first and foremost from the beginning of the design process. 

“Mississippi is a very rural state, and while many citizens may not have Internet access, most do have a smartphone,” Blocker explained. “Anytime we look at application interfaces, we are making sure there is a mobile app, because we get the most usage and help the most citizens by having that app they can use on a smart device. We have an electronics oversight committee (EOC) that looks at all our e-gov work that we put into ms.gov. It has elected officials and executives from the larger regulatory bodies. That group gives very good input on what we need to focus on. Looking at it from a mobile perspective is always top of mind.”

Mississippi launches an average of 20 new services per year ranging from small content-only websites to complex, comprehensive applications. The EOC governance structure makes it accountable for delivering results that benefit citizens and the entire state government operation. 

The ability to send push notifications has proven valuable during the pandemic, Blocker said. “We have an app called Mississippi Ready. If you sign up for it, you get a push notification with the updated numbers of cases and deaths. If you click that notification it will take you to the website for more information.” The state’s myMS app encourages users to set and receive reminders and alerts for services important to them. In 2020, myMS was rebuilt from the ground up with a focus on speed and is now 40 percent faster. 

Mississippi has been a leader in terms of embedding emerging technologies into its Web presence. The website has enabled digital voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, and it was the first state to deploy a statewide chatbot (see sidebar).

Although the state has been eager to embrace new ways to engage citizens, Blocker said the website design team wants to make sure they are continuing to combine simplicity with responsiveness. “We really like the fact that the website now is simple and concise. Our focus is on making sure that the front page has what citizens are most interested in. I haven’t looked today, but I would guess that Hurricane Sally has popped up on the front page. We want to be flexible and make changes based on what citizens are searching for to make it the most user-friendly website. When citizens find what they are looking for, they are going to come back.” 

Cabarrus County, N.C. — First Place in the County Category

Researching details on properties in Cabarrus County, N.C., just northeast of Charlotte, has gotten much easier since county officials started making the data available in a format that matches how people actually search for it. 

“We have a GIS mapping application, but the source data for that can lie in other systems, so when you pull up a property, we like to have a link so you can pull the deed and tax information in. It becomes a portal to all the information connected to that location,” said Debbie Brannan, area county manager of innovation. “People talk about being bounced from department to department when they go into a government for different services. We try to make sure all the services are pulled together in one spot, and try to anticipate their needs and what they are looking for associated with a property.” 

That is just one example of the type of service that has gotten more intuitive to use. Third-party integrations through the use of APIs have allowed the county to enhance the Web services it offers the public, added Todd Shanley, the county’s chief information officer. 

Rather than developing their own software or having to write custom interfaces, the county has shifted to commercial software platforms that it can build on and plug into other services and widgets via API. SeamlessDocs is integrated into the county website for questions and comments to be routed to the appropriate department for response. A widget called Userway.org is integrated into the website to increase accessibility. 

“We use a product called BiTek for our tax system,” Shanley said, “and we needed a good way to do payments. We brought in a company called PayIt. Rather than having them go off and write an integration, our team facilitated that API and wrote a good bit of it with those vendors to make sure that process was seamless to our end users. That has been a big shift for us.”

Cabarrus County has a strong team and governance process focused on improving citizen engagement. Two years ago, Brannan moved from the CIO position into her innovation role, while Shanley took the CIO post. Together they work with the public information officer and communications and outreach department to prioritize changes and step up awareness of digital services available. 

“I have been focusing on a cultural change to try to get everybody in the county, not just the IT department, involved in improving processes to ensure we are delivering services to the customers,” Brannan said. “The pandemic shined a light on that. People are looking for services, and we haven’t missed a beat. We use Accela software for our planning and zoning. We already had citizens access permits and inspections online and the numbers have actually increased over the previous year, even though our building is closed and people can’t come in.” 

The pandemic also has increased the use of video for virtual services. For example, the county building inspectors are using Microsoft Teams to do video inspections in the field. “That is a game changer, not just during the pandemic, but longer term from a resource allocation standpoint,” Shanley said. 

Brannan agreed that the wider use and acceptance of video meetings by the public during the pandemic may be the disruption needed to spur the use of video for county government services long term. One of her pet projects is to make that increased video usage permanent. “I feel like the resistance sometimes comes from our internal customers," Brannan said. "They think external customers might not have the capability or know-how, but now our external customers have been using video to visit with their grandkids. As the technology is accepted in the public arena, it is easier for us to use those to deliver government services.”

Shanley said the flexibility in Web design and communication channels has served the county well during the pandemic. “The key for us is that processes were already in place on our website and we just added the COVID topic information. So many services were present. Some may have been underutilized, but being able to leverage them allowed us to react to the needs of citizens very quickly.” 

San Diego, Calif. — First Place in the City Category

A major website redesign for the city of San Diego in 2016 started with a huge community engagement effort. “We learned that the majority of people who come to our site have an action in mind: pay a bill or report a pothole,” said Ron Vazquez, Web services manager. “So we made sure all the action-oriented services are among the first things you see, such as our Get It Done feature, which spotlights the most common action items on SanDiego.gov.” 

A three-pronged approach of responsive design, customer-centric theme and “get it done” mentality works well for the city. Vazquez said the city also has an analytics-driven continuous improvement mindset, based on the realization that what people are looking for always changes and website design trends change. “We are always looking for ways to improve the site — not so much that we are looking to add new technologies to our site, but improving on things we already have," he explained. "One example is our search function. We realized that there are other innovations out there like chatbots, but we figured that if our search didn’t work properly, then what use would a chatbot be? We are always focused on what we have and how we can improve it.” 

A strong Web design effort can actually start to break down silos between agencies and bolster a service-oriented mentality. Before the redesign, Vazquez said, each department had its own logo. “It didn’t look like one government entity. Yet citizens consider us one entity. We created a common ‘One San Diego’ theme that all departments follow and a pattern library with all our design elements.” They are also breaking down silos by creating a service-oriented structure. If you want pool hours, you go to "City of San Diego/pools." You don’t have to know that Parks and Recreation is the department in charge of pools. “By going down that path," he added, “we are aligning ourselves with how the rest of the world thinks, which is not by departments.”

Some of these changes are in response to citizen feedback. When citizens submit non-emergency problems to the city for resolution, the cases are automatically forwarded to the responsible department, and since the cases are visible to the public, the city is held accountable for resolution times. 

Within departments, there is plenty of digital innovation taking place. “Before the pandemic, a lot of the services the Developmental Services Department provided required in-person visits,” Vazquez said. Now they have a fully online application process for all new projects. Requiring all new projects be processed online is an integral part of DigitalDSD, an initiative to modernize all workplace systems and cost-effectively leverage technology to increase productivity and improve service delivery to customers.

“They have doubled the number of permits you can apply for online,” he said, “and they are booking meetings through Microsoft Teams to meet with city planners and engineers entirely online now.” 

Click here to see all winners and finalists, including Project Experience and COVID-19 Response Winners.

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

David Raths contributing writer
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