Milwaukee County, Wis., Launches Resident Services Web Portal

The pandemic spurred the county to launch a one-stop shop for resident services that’s proving to be a boost to public employees, too, sparing Parks Department staff an hour or more on each events permit application.

Milwaukee My County Portal.png
Milwaukee MyCounty Customer Portal screenshot
The pandemic has ushered in a new, digital approach to services for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, with the debut and steady growth of an online citizens’ portal meant to be a one-stop shop for county services.

Older county governments can easily fall into an if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it mindset, where even efforts to take department processes online meet resistance, Milwaukee County CIO Lynn Fyhrlund, told Government Technology. But the pandemic changed all that, introducing massive social shifts that necessitated innovation.

Departments suddenly had to reach residents who were avoiding public spaces as well as county employees who were working from home. These created demand for new approaches, while federal COVID-19 relief unlocked funding to help make digital services launches possible.


The MyCounty Customer Portal launched in late 2020 to bring better access to an initial slate of three public services, and the county has been using the past year to add capabilities and engage more public agencies and residents.

Linda Alexander, a business analyst with the Milwaukee Information Management Services Department, explained to Government Technology that the web portal streamlines and simplifies county employees’ tasks while giving constituents easier ways to access services and monitor request statuses. The project is no quick fix to simply tide residents over during the public health crisis but is intended to also improve local operations for the long run.

SAVING HOURS?

Parks Department staff were among the first to get a crack at the portal, with permit requests for using parks for weddings or other special events going live on the platform.
This marked a big shift for residents who had previously been asked to print and fill out PDF permit applications, then either hand deliver the documents to department offices or scan and email in the requests. Employees then had to manually type up the details into the Parks Department systems. Resident questions often were handled via emails, and messages could get lost in the shuffle, Alexander said.

“Things could go back and forth and get lost or not prioritized, and customers didn’t have a way to view what was happening with their requests,” she said.

Such methods were cumbersome during the best of times and prone to human error. But efforts to avoiding residents or staff having to visit offices in person during the pandemic made these work flows even more challenging.

Transferring the permit request process to an online platform has saved employees roughly 60 to 90 minutes per application, according to a report Alexander provided to Government Technology. Park staff use the employee-facing side of the portal to view all information about a request in one spot, without having to track down email chains, and can more easily communicate with other employees about the tasks, for example.

Residents, in turn, get greater transparency through tracking features that let them view their requests’ statuses.

ACCESS FOR ALL

Web services are not ideal for everyone, however, with some residents still preferring live help. That makes it important that the portal only supplements — rather than replaces — existing contact options like phone calls, Alexander said.

The county also has been looking to improve the platform's appeal and catch wrinkles in its user experience. As part of that, the county is gathering feedback through a soft launch of its senior meals service.

Planned updates also aim to bring access to those who may need assistance accessing or navigating the web. The county is considering installing digital kiosks in public areas like senior dining centers to enable constituents who need help or who don’t have Internet access at home to use the portal, with staff on hand to help.

A likely forthcoming mobile launch would also improve accessibility in digital deserts, given that the overwhelming majority of the county’s adults are believed to have smartphones, Alexander said.

NEXT-LEVEL SERVICES

The portal has grown to support a handful of services, and the county intends to keep adding. Future efforts will incorporate payments processes, allowing residents to complete transactions on the portal.

But going live with this capability will require first securing a third-party payments provider, something Fyhrlund said the county government chose to do to spare it the responsibility and liability of handling sensitive payment card details.

As the portal expands and more departments onboard to using the same tools, the government will also get a more holistic view of returning users and better data insights, Fyhrlund said.

“When you get common systems, it’s easier to create a common data structure across the board,” he said. “Some of the positive that will come out further down the line is our data analytics will be better.”

Existing data silos between the county’s 43 departments means that each one might have its own separate entry for the same resident. But if the county can get all agencies using one system, this could lead to a clearer view across departments.

Benefits might include allowing residents to register with the county once only, rather than have separate accounts with each department they access. The better insights also might enable the county to proactively reach out to residents who receive one service about other services they may find helpful, such as by potentially informing a resident who receives meal services about the availability of heat assistance services as well.

But these are just ideas for now, and the county will also need to take care with data privacy when it gets to the point of considering when and how data could be shared across agencies, Fyhrlund said. He noted that there is no reason for other departments to know if a particular user got a parks permit, for example.

Expanding the portal's services will depend on convincing more agencies that joining is worth their while, Alexander said. Departments can be wary of investing limited budget funds into new efforts until they’ve already seen clearly what it can do for them, but the COVID-19 relief money for local governments has empowered the county to make its case.

Alexander said it has enabled the portal team to fund proof-of-concept demonstrations to win over agencies — without asking to draw on agencies’ existing budgets. The county expects to keep building out the portal in the coming months.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.