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Santa Monica Shoots for the ‘Frictionless’ Citizen Experience

A plan to modernize IT and better enable a work-from-anywhere posture in Santa Monica, Calif., served the city well when the COVID-19 pandemic reshuffled city services and how they are delivered.

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By the time the COVID-19 pandemic upended city operations in Santa Monica, Calif., the oceanside hamlet just outside Los Angeles, you could say the city was nearly as prepared as it could be.

A years-long process to bring residents, visitors and businesses a more digitally postured city hall was about 90 percent complete. Employees could work from home or anyplace, securely. Other modernizations had come along to reduce the use of paper, put more services online and engage more directly and personally with the community.

“We wanted to have what we call, a ‘total workplace initiative,’ where you basically could bring your workplace with you wherever you are,” recalled Joseph Cevetello, chief information officer for Santa Monica. “I knew that we needed to enable our employees or staff to be able to work with modern technology."

“So we got lucky,” he reflected. “And when COVID hit, we were 90 percent of the way done. We went from having about five people teleworking, to 820, in 36 hours. And that’s not an exaggeration.”

It was a speedup to remote-working Cevetello admits “we got lucky with that,” and outpaced other cities in the area with the smooth, rapid launch of a teleworking city posture.

“We kinda had a leg up on being productive, and so that really helped the city during a very difficult time,” Cevetello said.

Cevetello came to Santa Monica in 2017 and began a process of modernizing city government. He found an IT infrastructure and organization from the 1990s. There was no wireless network in the city facility. The staff still worked on hard-wired desktops with no capacity for mobile or remote work. Cevetello took the city through a “robust” strategic planning process to “create a plan for technology for the city that would propel us to move into the future as a true 21st century government,” the CIO explained.

To move the city in a more modern direction, Santa Monica partnered with tech provider ServiceNow to digitize a number of city platforms.

In the early days of COVID-19, the city partnered with the vendor to quickly put out what was loosely known as the “city of Santa Monica app,” an expanded version of 311, which tied into city work processes.

“We didn’t want it to just be a 311 app. We wanted it to be another portal into the city,” said Cevetello, calling attention to app features like its ability to engage more completely with residents, rather simply being a portal to file complaints or concerns.

Part of what the solution brings, said Bob Osborn, chief technology officer in global governments at ServiceNow, is a system that feels like the familiar structure of online shopping.

“Not only did people need to be able to quickly access a variety of services digitally, [during COVID-19],” said Osborn. “But citizens also now expect a consumer-like service experience from their local governments."

“Siloed and disconnected systems can make it nearly impossible to build seamless, intelligent solutions that address all those needs while keeping their information secure,” Osborn added, in an email.

By the end of the month, Santa Monica will have launched a completely digitized, automated, electronic workflow process through ServiceNow for the Human Resources department.

“When I started in 2017, everything was on paper. To the point where you had to have a wet signature … even for tennis court reservations,” said Cevetello, somewhat incredulously. “I can’t think of something that’s going to be more transformational in the organization in the next year than this HR process because it is a painful, slow process.”

Even prior to COVID-19, Santa Monica had been moving down a path of simplifying and merging disparate systems, procured in most cases, from as many different vendors, said Cevetello, whose approach has been to transform these many systems in a more consolidated architecture which would have the end result of making it easier for residents and businesses to interact with city hall — reimagined as “the Amazon of government.”

“To me, what Amazon has excelled at is making a frictionless customer experience for you.”

“That’s where I think, keeping this digitization going and accelerating, where it’s going to start to evolve. And we’re really focused on, how can we provide the best customer experience with the least amount of friction as possible,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.