Government Experience Awards 2021: New Ways to Reach Out
In the fifth annual Government Experience Awards, winning jurisdictions got creative and found new ways to get citizens the critical information and services they needed to weather the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
An annual program from the Center for Digital Government,* the awards acknowledge the outstanding efforts and overall best practices of government agencies seeking to improve the citizen experience and raise the bar on how services are delivered.
Winners this year explored new modes of citizen outreach. They stood up remote services in record time and made strides toward closing the digital divide. All found new and creative ways to serve their citizens in the midst of turbulent times.
MICHIGAN — FIRST PLACE IN THE STATE CATEGORY
In Michigan, technology leaders sought to simplify and streamline government interactions.
“The focus for us has been on improving the digital experience through what we are calling our ‘unified branding’ or ‘overall digital experience’ for the state,” said eMichigan Director Suzanne Pauley. That work seeks to align the user experience across websites, social media and applications, to ensure a high level of consistency and continuity.
First, the IT team has turned to software as a service in support of user access and identity management. Prior to this, each agency had its own online authentication protocols. Now visitors to state sites have a single user name and password, which makes for a more seamless experience all around.
Users have a smoother experience, “and it's also about uptime and availability,” Pauley said. “Now we can do maintenance without taking the system down, so there’s that 24/7, always-on availability. And SaaS allows us to grow as needed, to handle more transactions in response to things like seasonal demand.”
The technology team also has been migrating Michigan.gov off a 20-year-old legacy infrastructure and onto a more modern web content management system, a work currently in progress.
“It's a huge lift: There are 120 websites and over 150,000 content pages. Pre-COVID, it was being accessed over a million times per day, and it's grown exponentially since then,” Pauley said.
To migrate the system while still supporting that intensive level of use, the team broke up the work into stages. First came research, a deep dive into understanding why and how people were using the system. “Then we looked at it from a technology perspective: What's the right platform for us, what can handle the scale of what we're trying to do? What has the features and the functions that we need now and for the future?” Pauley said.
Now the team is in the final phase, working toward implementation. “With something this big, you have to take it in phases, and you have to make sure that each phase completes successfully before moving to the next one,” she said.
The revamped Michigan.gov system helps support the push toward a unified citizen experience, as do the fruits of another key initiative, the implementation of a digital “design framework.” The framework offers guidelines in support of application development, as a way to ensure uniformity across websites, applications and the state’s social media presence.
“It should feel very seamless to people as they traverse our digital environment,” Pauley said. To that end, the framework embraces a range of design elements including color palette, typography, iconography — and especially accessibility. “We have put a huge focus on making sure that our services can be used by everyone.”
As digital engagements continue to increase, Michigan’s IT leaders are working to deliver a smooth and uniform citizen experience. Taken together, these efforts will help to ensure users can navigate swiftly and successfully across a range of digital government touch points.
NEW CASTLE COUNTY, DEL. — FIRST PLACE IN THE COUNTY CATEGORY
In New Castle County, Del., the pandemic spurred fast action on the part of civic leaders. They moved to streamline COVID-19 testing, leveraged social media for mass communication, and expanded the county’s Wi-Fi footprint.
“The county executive charged the leadership team early to take action, and we did,” said CTO Michael Hojnicki.
County Executive Matthew Meyer saw other jurisdictions struggle with scheduling and with long-delayed reporting of test results, and he made COVID-19 testing an urgent first priority. “Our goal was to create as quickly as possible the most open, available, high-quality COVID-19 testing program in the country,” Meyer said.
The team tested several platform solutions and eventually selected health-care startup Curative to drive the effort. Their digital tools met the need.
“Our county has about 560,000 people, and in the course of about 11 months, we did almost 500,000 tasks. We were processing 2,000 to 3,000 tests a day, getting results to people within 24 hours,” Meyer said. “They also got information that was actionable, so that they knew based on whether they got a negative result or a positive result what next action they should take.”
Communication was another major priority in the realm of citizen experience. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, county leaders were eager to produce a steady flow of reliable information. To that end, “we took our social media and put it on hyper drive,” Hojnicki said.
The county ran a podcast series, and leveraged social media to deliver live content as well. “That way citizens could engage with leading scientists in our county, leading medical professionals, and just ask questions directly,” Meyer said. “Can I bring my kids to play on the playground? Is that safe? Instead of filtering it through nonmedical professionals, they could hear directly from the experts in an unfiltered way that enabled them to make decisions for themselves and their families.”
The key to social media success: compelling content. “The trick is not just to get on video or get on audio, but to develop creative, sincere content, so that it sticks out above the rest,” Meyer said. “You want to make something compelling so that it will be shared.”
The IT team also worked to expand broadband access throughout the community. With remote schooling and work-from-home, “we all realized that this ‘luxury’ called the Internet was really a necessity,” Hojnicki said.
The county already had Wi-Fi installed in libraries and other public buildings. At the outset of the pandemic the IT team flipped that model inside out, extending access into parking lots and other outdoor areas.
“With support from Verizon and others, we rolled out 22 sites in eight business days,” Hojnicki said. “And we stood up a website so people would know where to go for access.”
This proved a game-changer in terms of citizen experience. “Anyone who needed to get online for school, for work, they could come and sit outside of any of our public buildings,” he said.
MESA, ARIZ. — FIRST PLACE IN THE CITY CATEGORY
COVID-19 spurred energetic action in the Mesa, Ariz., IT shop, with a range of efforts to bolster the citizen experience amid the pandemic.
“We had to pivot very quickly from business as usual, to provide services to our citizens and to keep employees safe,” said CIO Travis Cutright.
The county moved quickly in support of electronic form submittals, putting digital processes in place within three weeks. This proved especially helpful in driving rapid distribution of CARES Act funding.
“Mesa is leading the entire country in funds distribution because of the way we were able to pivot so quickly on that,” Cutright said. “It was not just the forms, but the workflows we built into it. Folks would submit documentation, and the workflow would push it over to the reviewers to confirm that we'd received everything that we needed. We automated that whole process as much as possible, and we've done so well Maricopa County sent us an additional $5.5 million to distribute, because other cities in the valley were not able to get the money out.”
The city’s IT team also engaged in extensive citizen outreach in order to understand the needs emerging under pandemic stresses. That included citizen surveys, online polling and use of a mobile app and social media to pull in citizen feedback.
This effort helped the city to identify the most urgent needs. Public transport, for example, came to the fore as an area in need of support, and the IT team stepped up to help, making available civic data and GIS information to help optimize transportation offerings.
“We worked with partners like our rail systems and bus systems to help them figure out how to get folks where they needed to be across the city of Mesa,” Cutright said.
In addition, the city’s technology leaders took on the challenge of the digital divide. About 22 percent of the city’s half-million people lacked adequate Internet access at the outset of the pandemic, the IT team stepped up to lead an ongoing effort to promote greater broadband accessibility across the city.
“The digital divide is top of the list for our mayor and council, so we partnered with the Mesa public school system, which is the largest school system in Arizona, to look at census tract data and try to identify where the gaps were,” Cutright said.
With that information in hand, the IT team expanded public Wi-Fi access and then went one step further, leveraging federal recovery funds to build out a private cellular network, in order to get connectivity out to the underserved parts of the community.
“We were going up on poles and putting up cellular antenna arrays. The folks in these communities can apply for Internet connectivity, and we give them a hot spot to access Internet off of our private cellular network,” he said.
In addition to supporting the citizen experience through the pandemic, the cellular deployment should yield added benefits for the city going forward.
“We've got a $70 million project to replace all of our gas, electric and water meters with smart meters,” Cutright said. “Those meters need to feed data back so that the city can get usage information and determine if there are water leaks and that sort of thing. What we can do in the long haul is to backhaul that data over that private cellular network and not have to pay cellular fees.”
The Future Ready Award recognizes jurisdictions that are laying the foundation for the disruptive and converging forces shaping an uncertain future. It celebrates their technology or process changes; their innovation and collaboration; and their ability to harness technology to solve emerging problems.
FUTURE READY AWARD WINNERS
At the city level, San Leandro, Calif., has developed CITYCHAT, a bilingual mobile chatbot app that delivers near real-time data from city 911, 311, permits, and parks and recreation programs — all within one mile of the citizen’s location. The program uses data APIs and an AI engine to filter responses according to the user’s selection as well as location. There’s a built-in feedback mechanism, and subscribers can opt to receive texts related to activity in their “geofence” location. The interface is clean and informative, with easy navigation and a wide range of available services, and the system is inherently future-ready, able to adapt new modalities as additional geo-based data becomes available.
Among counties, Maricopa County, Ariz., stood out for its use of artificial intelligence to improve the customer and employee experience. The county’s Clerk of the Superior Court has created a set of AI-based tools that combine in-house, custom and out-of-the-box solutions for several AI services. The IT team tapped a range of vendor offerings in support of the effort, including IBM Watson, LivePerson, Twilio, IBM Datacap, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Google Vision API and New Relic. The tool set includes an intelligent virtual assistant (IVA), “Cleo,” powered by IBM Watson, to support a natural language experience through multiple channels including web chat, text, phone, email, social media and voice technologies including Alexa and Google. There’s also an employee IVA, “Yoda,” a system reliability IVA ,“Alfred,” and a quorum AI to capture data from court filings. It’s an especially forward-looking implementation: The county’s use of modular AI allows for any component to be swapped out for superior technologies at any time.
At the state level, the Louisiana Department of Health has taken a digital, data-driven “dashboard approach” to producing the mandated 2021 State Health Assessment. The citizen-friendly digital effort replaces a 125-page report PDF with an interactive, public-facing dashboard. The dashboard presents health data from the state and national databases. Users can view data across three main categories: community health; behaviors and exposures; and medical outcomes. Ready access to such data helps state officials to address health disparities and inequities, and supports data-driven policy and decision-making. The effort lays the foundation for the future. This digital, data-driven approach streamlines and overhauls existing processes. Moreover, it empowers health officials with the data analysis tools and insights they need to identify challenges and directly drive better health outcomes. At the state level, the initiative marks a major evolution in the way organizations and the public are able to access and use community data.
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.