The Argument for Urgency: Building Digital City Halls During and After the Pandemic

Guest Blog by Christopher Kuehn, Chief Commercial Officer, and Ronak Ganatra, VP of Marketing, GraphCMS 

GraphCMS is a GraphQL native Headless CMS that allows teams to build modern digital experiences across websites, portals, intranets, and applications. Designed for building a hosted GraphQL back-end that provides the tools needed for modern omni-channel content management and distribution, GraphCMS allows agile companies to deliver state-of-the-art solutions and minimize costs to bring cross-platform applications to the market faster. GraphCMS and CityBase have joined forces with city and county government and public utilities to create public sector websites that make it easier for residents to find, apply, and pay for the services they need. GraphCMS and CityBase share a common passion for helping local governments and utilities modernize their digital approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every industry throughout 2020, with both consumers and suppliers seeing a key positive trend for embracing a digital-first approach. The numbers indicate that within the United States alone, digital acceleration has leaped forward five years within a matter of just eight weeks, with US consumers speeding up digital adoption across several industries. Banking, shopping, and entertainment are leading the race, and utilities are not very far behind.

Source: McKinsey

While this adoption has been impressive, the case for further digitization on the side of public services has come into the spotlight, with cities and governments also seeing the benefits of increasing their online presence retain relevance to constituents in this digital age.

The City Hall no longer directly controls service delivery. Rather, it has become a broker of services, tasked with allocating resources for the benefit of local residents and businesses alike. Those operating models constructed for a lower-tech, more industrial, and infrastructure-focused economy no longer fit for today’s purposes where constituents have come to demand stronger digital services from their cities. To remain competitive, smart cities must respond with a fundamental rethink of the value they generate going forward, well beyond the “digital adjustment” required during the pandemic. 


What is a Digital City Hall?

The COVID-19 crisis has been a catalyst to digitizing public services. The online switch of most internal operations and citizen-facing processes has marked a milestone for the modernization of public services.

Simply put, a digital city hall represents the online transformation of a city. A digital city hall includes several processes:

Process management: Most processes have traditionally been paper-based (e.g., applying for permits and licenses, applying for relief funds, etc.). Moving such processes online, and therefore making the process simpler and easier to track, is a core responsibility of a digital city hall.

Automating workflows: Again, similar to permit applications, several processes are manual and repetitive for employees, stressing time and resources. Going digital helps this process.

Bringing innovation: Digital city halls must manage all the end-to-end implementations that they traditionally do offline. Examples include contracts, activations, payments, information, and communication.

For cities, this challenge doesn’t mean simply opting for a modern mobile app or a “trendy” technology, since the services have to be accessible by literally everyone in the city.  Accessibility is a driving reason why many cities are championing the effort to go above and beyond — to overcome the extra hurdles the private sector doesn’t have — in order to offer better digital experiences to their constituents. A true digital hall uses a technology infrastructure that helps power various services through various channels for everyone to use.

That means the tech-savvy can pay their parking tickets on their phone via digital wallet.

It means people without quick access to a bank can pay their water bill in cash at a payment kiosk near their home. And it means that anyone can submit their change-of-address form with the Board of Elections Commissioners without leaving their home.

In other words, a digital city hall should offer solutions that enable all residents to use their technology of choice.


Best practices when building a Digital City Hall

When digitizing their offerings, there are several factors cities must consider that impact what a digital city hall should provide. At GraphCMS, we’ve identified some crucial points and processes that make the transition a smoother one.

Work with structured content: The goal of structured content is to strike the balance between building content that is context first, single-use content, and creating content that is too modularized that it becomes difficult for the team to actually use. Getting into this stride can take some time and adjustments to the content models; however, the payoff of efficient workflows, reusable content, and easy optimization is worth the initial investment. During the content modeling process, it is important to gather input from all of the stakeholders and to test the content models with content editors to ensure that the content models work well for their needs.

Source: GraphCMS

This gives the opportunity to “sketch out” the scope of the digital city hall and understand what content needs to be delivered where, and what they’re connected to — saving implementation time and reducing costs of fixing things down the road.

Iterate in phases: Teams will notice that once they have migrated to a structured approach to content, they will have more control over which things should be included in various presentations of the final platform. When working with structured content, it is possible to create a structured content hub that houses the relevant information in a modular way. This means that as new projects come to fruition teams will be able to call on existing content as a base before creating custom content for each new project. As teams begin to iterate that content, the content will be much easier to edit as it is stored in a single place. Teams are able to access the model that stores information, such as value propositions, which are used throughout the final project, make changes, and have those changes reflected everywhere.

Don’t be afraid to improvise technologies: The challenges faced by monolithic systems, or “all in one suites” include slow development times due to the interconnectedness of the functionalities, overly-complex functionality where it is hard to maintain a broad overview of its scope, and small bugs bringing down the entire functionality of the architecture. In contrast, the microservice architectures approach is quickly becoming the industry standard. Microservice tech stacks allow you to leverage the most cutting-edge services such as Headless CMSs, SMS tools, Chatbots, Digital Asset Management Systems, and Content Delivery Networks, allowing for an easier to manage City Hall with improved citizen experiences.

Select an agnostic CMS: Traditional CMS and Portal solutions have the benefit of comfort — since we’re all familiar with them. A CMS like WordPress is often a default solution when you want a simple website or knowledge base, and don’t have technical resources to create a custom experience, and are ok with working on templates that resemble generic websites. However, for cities that depend on delivering cross-platform information across multiple channels, especially on a population-wide scale, a Headless CMS grows in importance. Since you have complete control over how and where content is delivered, a Headless CMS is usually a preferred option for digitizing teams, especially when the content needs are more complex than just a few simple websites.

Embrace an agile mindset: Agile is an iterative approach to project management that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Instead of betting everything on a “big bang” launch, an agile team delivers work in small, but consumable, increments. Working with small units means you can try and test each modular chunk of content in phases before it is deployed to the City Hall. This allows for incremental evolutionary development in contrast to waterfall methods which take a big idea and develop software to fit an inflexible unitary principle. Waterfall methods are high risk, clunky and often misfire. The iterative process of Agile allows for regular check-ins and feedback loops with the teams, customers, users, and all other stakeholders, making sure that the project develops in a way that is truly impactful and original.


The time to exploit the opportunity to go digital is now.

Need and urgency are great allies of innovation, and this holds true when looking at cities. Most of the public institutions in charge of managing the response to the COVID-19 crisis have faced the urgent need to assess their current digital technological capabilities. At the same time, they’ve faced sudden technological adoption and the need to implement solutions with a deeper public assessment.

This sense of urgency has led to countries adopting measures from technology-driven local governments in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, in terms of data analytics, information integration, or resource and capabilities availability for the implementation of technological initiatives. 

In parallel, public authorities needed to find effective ways to communicate the evolution of the pandemic, the response, and its implications for people within a complex context of social distress and information oversaturation.

The pandemic already gave local governments an unforeseen nudge in the right direction — using the urgency of the pandemic and the need for sharing critical information — and it is now up to governments to ride this momentum and expand their online presence to increase digital relationships with their constituents.

Public administration organizations have shown a large capacity for innovation in digital transformation. Due to its unexpected nature, the management of the crisis has revealed the potential of innovation and intrapreneurship of the public sector to put new solutions in place.

There’s no time like the present for them to continue exploiting the opportunity to go digital.


Why speed, performance, and empathy are key for digital public services.

The theme at the core of the world’s digital response to the COVID-19 has been urgency.  Governments need to embrace this digital wave and simultaneously ensure they set themselves up for success. More often than not, governments that have made the jump to digitize their services have a plethora of competitive advantages. 

Anyone with a smartphone knows that even the best looking apps will go unused if they fail to meet users’ needs. The same is true for a newly launched or redesigned government website. Appearances and basic functionality are necessary, but will not be appreciated if, at its core, the site does not address the underlying issues that can make accessing government services so painful.

GraphCMS and CityBase have partnered to evolve and power the website of a major US city. The city’s website gives citizens endless access to information that makes people’s lives easier, with a simple and intuitive interface. Users have information related to the pandemic at their fingertips, and also have the option to look at election results, pay their taxes, or schedule appointments, among other public services.

In this new context, local and state governments have the opportunity and the duty to reshape their strategy for the deployment of technology in city life in the short- and medium-terms. And this applies to the way cities work, to public services, to the interaction and communication between public administration and citizens.

It is highly convenient that this rethinking process looks beyond the immediate social and economic consequences of the crisis and instead looks to the future needs of their constituents at the center of their technological evolution. This happens by encouraging the innovative capacity of society without losing sight of the ethical implications on the end user at the other end of this process.

In short, we are on the verge of a moment where governments have the challenge to move toward being technological strongholds. To harness technology and innovation to both minimize the current risks, and also to anticipate possible future adversities and emerge stronger from the crisis.


About GraphCMS and CityBase

GraphCMS is the first native GraphQL Headless Content Management System (CMS), enabling over 40,000 teams across the world to rapidly build and deliver tomorrow’s omnichannel digital experiences at scale. Designed for building a hosted GraphQL back-end that provides the tools needed for modern omni-channel content management and distribution, GraphCMS allows agile companies to deliver state-of-the-art solutions and minimise costs to bring cross-platform applications to the market faster. GraphCMS is currently used in production by CityBase for local governments in US cities and counties and public utilities to accelerate their efforts in providing digital city halls to their constituents.



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