Creating a Digital City Hall

By Chris Foreman, Co-founder and CEO at Marketplace.city

For those of us in govtech, the “digital city hall” is part white whale, part rallying cry. We all want it, and we’re all working toward it, but at times achieving it can feel maddeningly elusive. Sometimes, we’re not even on the same page about what a digital city hall is.

I hosted a panel recently to help answer that question and get insight from some of the leading thinkers who are trying to make it a reality. Here, I distill some of their most helpful ideas and offer a few of my own to help establish a framework for what it means to build a digital city hall and how we can get there.

What Is a Digital City Hall?

Broadly, a digital city hall represents the digital transformation of a city.

Examples of this include:
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  • Transforming processes that are paper-based (e.g., applying for a permit) into digital experiences.
  • Automating workflows that are paper-based and time-consuming for employees.
  • Implementing payment technology that makes it possible to have end-to-end digital workflows.

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But a city government can’t just release a cool payments app that only works on iPhones and say it’s achieved the digital city hall. City services have to be accessible to literally everyone in that city.

Historically, the universal accessibility mandate has translated to cities taking the lowest common denominator of technology and providing that to everyone. These days, that means that many cities offer outdated and less-than-optimally-efficient technology.

The digital city hall I’m talking about serves everyone without compromising user experience. It’s building a technology infrastructure that helps power various services through various channels.

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

It means the unbanked can pay their water bill in cash at a payment kiosk near their home.

And it means that anyone can still walk into City Hall and submit their change-of-address form with the Board of Elections Commissioners and meet their local representatives.

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

Who Are the Stakeholders of a Digital City Hall?

Residents aren’t the only stakeholders in creating a digital city hall. Here are some of the key players:
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  1. City leaders (mayors, CTOs, CIOs, etc.): This is the group that has big-picture vision for the future of the city. They’ll be the ones making major decisions about which components of a city’s infrastructure are digitized, in what way, and with what software or apps.
  2. City employees: These are the frontline folks who will have to work with whatever new technology leaders choose to adopt. If they’re not on board with changes, transitioning can be difficult.
  3. Constituents: This includes everyone who lives or works in the city. They’ll be the ones interacting with the tech solutions, often through city employees.
  4. Vendors/partners: These are the private companies and organizations providing solutions to the cities.
  5. Nonprofits supporting constituents as they interact with the city: This includes groups that help residents access civic resources, like setting up payment plans for city fees, applying for veteran benefits, or registering to vote.

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To get to the point where everyone can use the tech they like, we have to consider the needs and challenges of each of these groups when it comes to transitioning to a digital city hall.

Challenge: Knowledge Sharing among City Leaders

Right now, a lot of cities are making exciting strides toward building digital city halls. New York, Atlanta, Dublin, and Barcelona, in particular, stand out in their planning and use of data to drive decision making. Indianapolis has completely revamped its website look and functionality. San Francisco has named a Digital Services Team, which is revamping services to address equity.

In an ideal world, the leaders of these cities would be meeting with leaders of other cities who want to bring similar results to their constituents. They’d be sharing blueprints and project plans and discussing what worked and what didn’t.

In the world we have, city leaders are busy. For the panel I mentioned above, one of our panelists literally flew in just for the length of his session because he had so much to get done at home.

Even though the knowledge sharing that happens at these events is incredibly valuable, leaders often struggle to communicate this value to stakeholders back home. A five-day conference may offer invaluable insight into how a mayor can improve their city, but translating that insight into noticeable changes may take months or years.

By making the kind of information that’s normally shared at conferences more widely available, we can better disseminate it among the people it can benefit most. (In fact, that’s a big part of what my company, Marketplace.city, does.)

So we, the govtech vendors and partners, have an important role to play: by finding ways to facilitate knowledge transfer among city leaders who are implementing important digital upgrades, we can help make every city run better — and, of course, demonstrate the value of the solutions we offer.

Challenge: City Staff Fatigue with New Tech

One of my favorite questions from the panel was about how city leaders got buy-in for new tech initiatives from staff. In other words, how do you improve the UX for government workers to make sure new technology is improving their lives, in addition to the lives of city residents and businesses who are the end users?

For example, if a city launches a new system to log citizen complaints, it’s important that it’s easy for people to submit their feedback. But the success of the program also depends on how easy it is for staff to respond to and act on that feedback.

Without tools for staff to track responses and other follow-up tasks, citizens are left wondering if they’re really being heard, and staff may receive an influx of follow-up phone calls.

Instead, take time to educate staff about the purpose of the feedback system. Set up processes (and process automation) for how to handle various types of feedback, and continue improving those processes based on staff feedback. This way, you empower government staff to help residents using new tools and their own expertise. You leave both residents and staff feeling valued, with technology playing a supporting role in positive interactions between people and their government.

Challenge: Building and Sustaining Momentum

Whether you’re the civic leader championing the new tech, the digital team helping to build it, or an outside vendor working with a city to accomplish its goals, the following strategies will help move the process forward:

Embrace the willing. When leaders first tell everyone about a new tech solution, some people will be on board. Others won’t. Rather than trying to get everyone excited, leaders should focus energy on those who already are. Help them understand how the new tech will improve their lives. Then work with them to be the first adopters. They will become a case study to demonstrate success. Plus, when their processes are digitized and functioning better than ever, they’ll be even more eager to convert everyone else.

You can formalize this process by creating a steering committee as you implement new tech. Ideally, this committee should include people with diverse perspectives on what a solution needs to do to serve constituents. By including both early adopters and those who are more reluctant, you help win everyone over, demonstrating that you value their input. After engaging with the new tech, steering committee members feel accountable for the project’s outcome and help win over other stakeholders.

Be excellent. This is crucial. If you play up a new technology, it has to live up to the hype. Introduce new features or services in phases, so you can test it with staff and constituents and build improvements into regular updates (more on this kind of agile development below). Work with vendors who provide excellent products and support, and implement those products in such a way that their impact is undeniable. It’s important, during this process, to keep up communication with everyone, supporters and detractors alike.

Every employee is necessary for a successful launch, and every employee needs support to be successful. Detractors will eventually come around, and part of what wins them over will be openness and willingness to help them succeed.

Move quickly. Once you have momentum from your early supporters, don’t let it fade. Work quickly to implement the new tech. Maintaining a sense of urgency helps ensure the project gets completed. Plus, the sooner the solution is functional for early adopters, the sooner everyone else can see its benefits — and get excited about the transition.

Moving fast also lets you benefit from the principles of agile development: rather than waiting to launch until you have what you think is the “perfect” solution, you can launch when you have a good-enough solution, then gather user data and iterate. This often requires a mindset shift for city governments, but it can be hugely beneficial to everyone involved.

Launch a new solution with the intention of continually tweaking it. Release updates on a regular schedule. This lets you improve based on the actual needs and behavior of the people using the solution, rather than a hunch about how it “should” operate.

Challenge: Outdated Purchasing Processes

The procurement process for government technology can be challenging for everyone involved. It’s long, arduous, and often intimidating for new vendors. In fact, I’d argue it’s one of the main obstacles to innovation in govtech right now.

Because of the many steps involved in responding to an RFP and working through the buying process, the vendors most likely to come forward are those who have done so with that city or agency before. They’re familiar with the process; they have established relationships with the government representatives they’ll be working with. They’re already staffed to do this kind of business with this particular city.

New vendors, on the other hand, are often discouraged by the long procurement process — especially if they’re used to working with private-sector companies, which tend to move much more quickly. Vendors that have never worked with a government client may be wary of investing so much time in a proposal if they might ultimately be rejected.

On the government side, policies tend to favor legacy vendors. Budgets are set with the costs of familiar vendors in mind. And these vendors represent a known risk, which is appealing for anyone accountable to a wide swath of constituents.

I’m not saying there’s no place for a long buying process; in fact, it can be an important safeguard when implementing technology that will be used by a diverse group of citizens. But I do think we should be open to new ways of proving the efficacy of new solutions.

For example, we should update the procurement process so that vendors can highlight work they’ve done with similar government entities. This way, those in charge of purchasing can evaluate a concrete example of what an unfamiliar vendor is offering, often to a familiar government entity.

This strategy puts the onus on vendors to create products that work in government settings and to demonstrate their effectiveness. It allows government buyers to see a valuable proof of concept before committing taxpayer dollars to an unfamiliar solution. It removes some of the unknowns that can hinder the adoption of new tech.

Challenge: Diverse Constituent Needs and Abilities

I mentioned above that residents should be able to engage with their city in whatever way makes them most comfortable, meaning the city should provide a variety of options for making payments, applying for permits and licenses, challenging assessments, registering to vote, and so on.

In addition to choice, though, this is a question of accessibility. A city government must serve every citizen, which means people with varying levels of:
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  • Payment capability, including the un- and under-banked
  • Tech ability, including those who aren’t familiar with desktop or mobile computers
  • Literacy and language skills, including those who struggle to read or struggle to read English
  • Physical ability, including those who use mobility aids, those with vision or hearing impairment, and others

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Knowledge sharing empowers city leaders to see what’s already working to serve diverse citizen groups.

Training and learning from staff better ensures that new technology is delivered to residents as quickly and effectively as possible.

Improving the procurement process means cities can get problem-solving tech to citizens sooner.

And constituents are often a potent force in convincing less-enthusiastic city employees to adopt new tech. As city residents see improved experiences in some parts of their local government, they will reach out to representatives in other areas to ask about the disparity. They become an unignorable force that propels initial detractors toward support.

There’s no single change that will spark the transformation to a digital city hall. But with consistent and persistent efforts from enthusiastic advocates, we can make city governments more efficient and effective, offering better services and experiences for all residents.

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