The pandemic ushered in a new digital approach to services for Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, with the launch and steady growth of an online citizen portal intended 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 bring departmental processes online meet with strain. resistance, Milwaukee County CIO Lynn Fyhrlund, Told Government technology. But the pandemic changed all that, ushering in massive social changes that required innovation.
Departments suddenly had to reach residents who avoided public spaces as well as county employees who worked from home. These have created a demand for new approaches, while federal aid against COVID-19 has unlocked funds to help make the launch of digital services possible.
the MyCounty customer portal launched in late 2020 to improve access to an initial roster of three utilities, and the county used last year to add capacity and hire more public agencies and residents.
Linda Alexander, business analyst in the Milwaukee Department of Information Management Services, explained to Government technology that the web portal streamlines and simplifies the tasks of county employees while providing constituents with easier ways to access services and monitor the status of requests. The project is not a silver bullet to simply help residents during the public health crisis, but also aims to improve local operations in the long term.
Parks Department staff were among the first to have a crack in the portal, with applications for permits to use the parks for weddings or other special events live on the platform.
This marked a big change for residents who had previously been asked to print and complete PDF permit applications, then deliver the documents to ministry offices or scan and email the applications. Employees then had to manually enter details into Parks Department systems. Residents’ questions were often answered via email and messages could get lost in the brew, Alexander said.
âThings could come and go and get lost or not be prioritized, and customers didn’t have a way to see what was going on with their requests., ” she said.
These methods were cumbersome at the best of times and subject to human error. But efforts to prevent residents or staff from visiting offices in person during the pandemic have made those workflows even more difficult.
Transferring the permit application process to an online platform saved employees around 60 to 90 minutes per application, according to a report Alexander provided to Government technology. Park staff use the employee side of the portal to view all information about a request in one place, without having to track down email chains, and can more easily communicate with other employees about tasks, for example.
Residents, in turn, benefit from greater transparency through tracking features that allow them to see the status of their requests.
ACCESS FOR ALL
However, web services are not ideal for everyone, with some residents still preferring live help. It is therefore important that the portal complements – rather than replacing – existing contact options such as phone calls, Alexander said.
The county is also looking to improve the platform’s appeal and catch wrinkles in its user experience. In this context, the county is collecting comments thanks to a gradual launch of its catering service for seniors.
Scheduled updates are also intended to provide access for those who may need help accessing or browsing the web. The county is considering installing digital kiosks in public spaces such as senior food centers to allow voters who need help or who do not have internet access at home to use the portal, with staff available to help you.
A likely upcoming mobile launch would also improve accessibility in digital deserts, given that the overwhelming majority of adults in the county are said to have smartphones, Alexander said.
NEXT LEVEL SERVICES
The portal has grown to support a handful of services, and the county intends to continue adding more. Future efforts will integrate payment processes, allowing residents to transact through the portal.
But to implement this capability, it will first need to secure a third-party payment provider, which Fyhrlund said the county government chose to do to relieve it of the onus and onus of handling sensitive credit card details. payment.
As the portal grows and more departments are integrated into using the same tools, the government will also get a more holistic view of repeat users and better insight into the data, Fyhrlund said. .
âWhen you get common systems, it’s easier to create a common data structure across the board,â he said. “Some of the benefits that will come out later is that our data analyzes will be better.”
The existing data silos between the 43 departments in the county mean that each can have its own separate entry for the same resident. But if the county can get all the agencies to use one system, it could lead to a clearer view of the departments.
Benefits may include allowing residents to register only once with the county, rather than having separate accounts with each department they have access to. The best information could also allow the county to proactively contact residents who receive a service about other services they may find useful, such as potentially notifying a resident who receives meal services of the availability of the services. heating assistance.
But these are just ideas for now, and the county will also need to take care of data privacy when it comes to determining when and how data might be shared between agencies, Fyhrlund said. He noted that there is no reason for other government departments to know whether a particular user has obtained a park permit, for example.
Expanding the portal’s services will depend on the belief of more agencies that membership is worth it, Alexander said. Departments may be reluctant to invest limited budget funds in new efforts until they have already seen clearly what they can do for them, but COVID-19 relief funds for local governments have given the county the power to make arguments.
Alexander said he allowed the portal team to fund proof of concept demonstrations to convince agencies – without asking to tap into the agencies’ existing budgets. The county plans to continue building the portal in the coming months.