Louisville, Ky., Continues Its Virtual Shift With New Tools

The city encountered a number of roadblocks to everyday processes in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but was able to push its agencies toward new ways of doing things.

Louisville, Ky.
Louisville, Ky.
Last year upended the government technology status quo. For the city government of Louisville, Ky., 2020 was when the number of desktops dwindled, staff training began to go virtual and people stopped thinking that a John Hancock required a pen and paper. 

Louisville IT Director Chris Seidt remembers when the city’s rigid telework policy only allowed someone to work from home once a week. But today, laptops make up 3,500 of the city’s fleet of 5,500 devices. Most employees are at home most of the time. 

“Where I had 78 employees normally … I now have four in the office at any point in time,” Seidt said, adding that other departments have seen similar shifts. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the city started small with an order of 500 laptops. During the fall, Seidt and his deputy director, Ken Hillebrand, determined that 2,000 more employees could give up their desktops and work more safely from home. There was a hurdle, however: how do you receive, configure and distribute thousands of pieces of equipment without someone getting infected with COVID-19 in the process? 

The solution turned out to be leasing a vacant Office Depot building and outfitting it with decals in order to keep 40 coworkers separated as they moved around inside to prepare and move equipment. Initially, the plan was for individual staff from other agencies to enter the building and pick up a laptop, Hillebrand said. However, most departments wanted to do bulk pickups, which became the norm. 

“Happy to say we didn’t have a single positive case while that facility was open,” Seidt remarked. 

Edward Jody Meiman, emergency services director for the city, believes there are advantages and disadvantages to going more virtual. He noted that with collaboration platforms, you get to see the faces of partners across the country rather than just hearing them on the phone. In general, the virtual platforms make meetings more of a cinch to set up. 

“No matter where people are at, you can get them together very quickly,” Meiman said. 

At the same time, Meiman is a hands-on type of person. As a boss, he prefers having people around and sees a day when staff will return to the office, but he recognizes there will be more options and that it’s “going to be a different world for the next couple of years.” For example, when people do come back to the office, WebEx may still have to be used for meetings based on health recommendations.

Seidt said the proliferation of remote work in Louisville has led to permanent adjustments that benefit efficiency. One example is the city’s widespread adoption of DocuSign. 

Seidt’s department used the signing tool as far back as 2018, but only sparsely, said Tracy Meiners, an information systems analyst who also handles HR activities for IT. The rollout for the city began in early April 2020, but adoption among agencies wouldn’t ramp up until May. Seidt stated that the city now utilizes the tool to sign around 25,000 documents a month. 

“I know we’ve seen a significant drop in our print consumption … It has changed people’s behavior with how they review documents and how they use printing,” Seidt observed. 

“[It] is helping us push one of our goals, which is to be paperless by 2023,” Meiners said. 

Before the tool became commonplace, many documents would float around for two weeks before all signatures were provided. HR Director Ernestine Booth-Henry said the same paperwork can now be handled in minutes or hours.

“The things that would have required signatures or papers in order for us to make changes, be it in the system or personnel changes, a lot of that went on hold [during the pandemic],” Booth-Henry said. 

Seidt said the key to the successful rollout was having an IT staff member, Meiners in this case, who was knowledgeable about the tool so that users wouldn’t get frustrated with unanswered questions. Meiners said she also holds monthly meetings to provide pointers.

Meiners added that DocuSign has allowed the city to efficiently handle paperwork for its new coronavirus vaccine program, which requires a number of signed agreements. 

An ongoing challenge for Louisville during the pandemic has revolved around staff trainings, which were done in person before COVID-19. Booth-Henry said the city has been using multiple tools, such as PowerDMS and PowerPoint, to deliver training, but this approach is somewhat fragmented. Louisville is now in the process of adopting Blackboard, which will “allow us to use a single resource for multiple tasks.”

Seidt said one of the major advantages of using Blackboard over other training solutions is that the tool produces handy employee transcripts. 

“It’s going to be good because it allows us to track all of the employees training in one place,” Seidt said. “Even if we get down the road and you attend a class in person say in 2022, we can still load that course completion in Blackboard and keep that transcript information available, even if you’re not doing it virtually.”

During spring 2020, Seidt told Government Technology that Louisville was learning the ins and outs of virtual city council meetings. The technical challenges have leveled off since that time. Moreover, adoption is way up, and not just for city council.  

“We’re close to 1.8 million meeting minutes in WebEx since March,” Seidt shared. 

For Louisville, all of these changes are about more than reacting to the pandemic. One gets the sense that the city’s recent investments in tech have given staff a new confidence about what lies beyond COVID-19. 

“It’s the whole idea of being more resilient in government … We’re working on it, and we always will be,” Hillebrand said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.