Five emerging public sector trends as people adjust to Covid (and the data to prove it)
By Jason Maeder, Vice President of Product, CityBase
For years, a shift has been happening in the public sector. The old way of interacting with your government or utility provider is changing for the better. Public sector entities are beginning to keep pace with technology trends from the private sector. Government agencies are showing that they, too, can offer their services in ways that don’t require residents to stand in line between the hours of 9AM and 5PM to submit paper forms and other hard paperwork.
The shift toward digitization and on-demand service has been gradually taking root in the public sector, but it took a pandemic to test the flexibility of our communities’ infrastructure. When stay-at-home measures turned business as usual upside down, whether a city had flexible infrastructure or not was a determining factor in how well they could continue operating the business of government, and how quickly they could offer critical services to their communities.
The trends are in the data. We looked at usage data across all CityBase products in the field with our clients that span government agencies, city- and county-wide governments, and public and investor owned utilities across the United States. Here are several emerging trends we saw:
Contactless, self-service solutions are on the rise
Public service providers across the country are crafting a response to the pandemic that best serves their communities and the issues they’re facing. Some have chosen to provide flexible payment options so people can continue to settle their debt, if they are able to. Others have chosen to provide relief to constituents, knowing their communities were hard hit by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Governments and utilities that are not deferring payments are instead offering flexible payment solutions. In several of these markets, we are seeing increased activity through their self-service payment channels.
In the graph below, you can see the in-person payment volume for a utility company that provides self-service indoor and outdoor payment kiosks for its walk-in customers. The utility’s customers can pay on the kiosks 24/7 using cash, check, or credit or debit cards. The payment technology is cloud-based, enabling real-time lookups of the amount a person owes, and real-time post-back of payments. So people’s debts are settled immediately with every payment, even when they pay in cash after business hours.
In March, the utility closed all of their payment centers during Covid stay-at-home orders. However, their expansive network of outdoor 24/7 payment kiosks enabled them to continue serving their walk-in customers. Even with no payment centers open, which also meant that customers couldn’t access indoor payment kiosks, in April the utility saw a 19% increase of in-person payments on their 39 outdoor kiosks, which remained easily accessible. Their staff manage revenue using digital payment technology that enables them to monitor in-person payments even as they continue to work remotely.
Cities are no longer using paper for paperwork
Payments aren’t the only service seeing a shift to a self-service, digital medium.
For years, paper forms have been working their way towards the trash bin in favor of online forms. As public sector agencies rapidly responded to Covid, they launched innovative digital services that moved existing in-person processes online, and created new programs as cities used digital forms to collect information from their communities and reach those in greatest need. New projects included employee readiness surveys, economic relief programs, and innovation challenges.
As cities, counties, and utilities began to reopen buildings and in-person operations, paper forms were no longer the preferred format.
The graphs below represent all CityBase Screendoor projects from across our U.S. clientbase. CityBase Screendoor allows users to create and publish online forms that are backed by a staff interface for business process automation and applicant management.
March began a surge of new digital services, or projects, using the tool in March. But even after the initial push for new online services as buildings closed, projects continued a steady path and saw an increase in July, even as many government buildings reopened. Recent CityBase Screendoor projects include streamlined outdoor dining permitting, requests for proposals on innovations in Covid specimen collection, and a program that helps distribute non-medical face masks to residents.
People responded to the newly digitized services. Adoption of the online forms surged in March and July, showing that people are more than willing to submit forms online when they are able. In Indianapolis and Marion County, where they launched a Dine Out Program that fast-tracked outdoor seating permits for restaurants, they received more than 100 applications within the first four days of launching the service — and staff were able to process the permits immediately during the urgency of the new outdoor dining protocol.
New users are adopting self-service solutions for the first time
For communities that have always had in-person payment solutions available, constituents are discovering a new self-service way to interact with their local government and utility providers. With many payment centers closed, or people not yet comfortable venturing into public places, contactless options provide constituents with worry-free solutions to stay safe while keeping their water and electricity on during the pandemic.
Several CityBase clients saw the number of new users spike in the months of March and April. The result is an entirely new group of people who have found an alternative way to interact with their government or utility, now and in the future.
A utility that closed its payment centers in March saw a 97% increase in new kiosk users from February 2020, when payment centers were fully open, to April 2020, when those payment centers were closed for the entire month. This is especially impactful as adoption trends usually mean that those people will continue using the more convenient, self-service option.
“Once the customer uses that kiosk once, they are coming back and using the kiosk the next time they make their payment,” said an accounting manager at the utility company.
With only a limited number of payment stations available, those that are open and accessible 24/7 are seeing almost double the visits each month. Public services are essential for people to maintain, and they welcome the opportunity to satisfy their obligations in accessible ways that maintain their health and safety.
The graph above shows the kiosk usage of one utility client based on what types of kiosks people were using.
Above, another utility’s customers nearly doubled traffic per kiosk, as they favored outdoor kiosks that remained accessible 24/7.
More people are also turning to online self-service payments. As City Hall and other government buildings are closed for in-person payments, counties are seeing as much as 50-100% increase in web activity for property tax payments year over year. Constituents are newly exploring options they had previously, but weren’t as motivated to use. Now, they’re paying online to stay safe while satisfying their obligations.
The graph above shows one county government’s property tax payment webpage visits during the season those payments were due. Although the technology was available in 2019 and 2020, more people paid online in 2020, with an increase of 129% more users for the month of July 2020 from the previous year.
People are finding new ways to get the information and services they need
As people were trying to make sense of the world in the spring of 2020, cities and counties were publishing real-time information to their website as the primary communication vehicle. One county with an intuitive website saw roughly 50K visitors a month, or a total 286K page views for Covid information in the beginning of this year.
In Indianapolis and Marion County, when services were offered to the community at a time of need, more than 250K people visited a page for information about obtaining a non-medical face mask. That saved countless hours of phone calls and emails to an already overwhelmed support desk.
More than 100K people submitted requests for the non-medical masks in July alone. The digital service allowed people to quickly and safely request a mask without having to visit a crowded public place to complete and submit a paper form.
Using CityBase technology, Indy also processed 100 outdoor dining permits in the first four days of their Dine Out program.
“We did not receive very many questions about the process or about the technology, and I think that is a real credit to the technology that was being used,” said an administrator in Indy’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services. “The restaurant owners weren’t getting caught up on how to submit things. They were able to just get it into us, and we were able to turn around responses to them within 24 hours.”
People are still paying in cash
While many turn to online solutions, there is still a significant percentage of the U.S. population who pays for essential services using cash due to preference or need.
Starting in the month of April, there has been an increase in cash payments on kiosks for those people who would have otherwise paid at a cashier. Across our kiosk network, which spans governments and utilities in the U.S., we have seen a 10% increase in cash payments. This suggests that those who pay in cash are not modifying their payment behaviors, but rather looking to alternative ways to continue paying using their preferred tender type.
Some of these customers are likely un- or under-banked, and may not have access to traditional banking services that would enable them to pay online by credit card or bank account. By providing self-service options to cash-paying customers, our clients are offering a service that makes it easier for underserved populations to pay their bill without incurring additional fees or other logistical burdens. And by making these payment options contactless, they are also ensuring the safety of their customers and their employees.
Below is a utility client and the breakdown of its kiosk payments by tender type.
The public sector can maintain (and improve) operations through CARES Act eligible solutions
Technology solutions that enable continued operations while eliminating person-to-person contact are eligible for reimbursement under the CARES Act grant. This means cities, counties, and utilities can use CARES Act funding for technology like payment kiosks, web payments, online forms, and investments in their websites and other digital tools that improve service delivery for their customers and remote management for their staff.
According to guidance released by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “any COVID-19-related expenses reasonably necessary to the function of government that satisfy the Fund’s eligibility criteria” is an eligible expenditure for reimbursement under the CARES Act. One county in Massachusetts published municipal FAQs that advises that a “purchase made to respond to the public health emergency to mitigate cash handling,” such as self-service payment kiosks, are a reimbursable COVID expense.
As a technology firm that exclusively serves the public sector, we at CityBase have seen how resilient communities are finding innovative solutions to continue and even improve their public service delivery. Get in touch to let us know how we can help.