August 3

Using a Pandemic to Your Advantage

Author: Peter Frerichs, Consultant, Revize

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The word "lifeblood" gets thrown around a lot when it comes to communicating how valuable someone is to an organization. "James is the lifeblood for X-Corp. Without him this ship would have sunk long ago." Or, "This hospital does not run without Cindy, she's our lifeblood, and we'd be lost without her." James and Cindy sound like excellent contributors, and certainly beloved by their co-workers. But anyone person is highly unlikely to be the lifeblood of a company.

Yet, when it comes to departments, that's another story. You could make the case that Municipal Clerks, the folks that maintain all vital fiscal records and accounts for local governments, is the collective lifeblood of our cities. They're the people behind the scenes that rarely receive any credit, but deserve a TON! Municipal clerks are true lifeblood members, and they're facing a unique challenge during COVID-19. Much of their work involves human interactions and the physical processing of paper. The pandemic has interrupted this, and while challenging, changes due to COVID-19 are resulting in technological modifications that will likely facilitate everyone's lives moving forward.

Pre-COVID-19, most municipal clerks dealt with loads of physical, paper records. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, there were so many paper records that they needed to begin scanning in the neighborhood of 10,000 documents a week. This was touted as progress, a march towards technological innovation. But to anyone who has scanned a document, the result solves a storage and administrative issue, but not a long-term, efficiency, or productivity issue. Less cabinets are needed, yet the pushing of paper from the municipal desk to residents still occurs.

Moreover, many municipal clerks are never trained in records management. Pulling a resident's record should, in theory, be a quick process. But audits reveal this is not always the case. Several city governments find themselves in this nether-region, between physical records, scanned records in the cloud, and few centralized systems to coordinate between the two. Now, add a pandemic into the mix, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

Municipal governments suffered in the early days (March and April) of COVID-19. Granted, pandemics tend to catch people off-guard, but the virus revealed some glaring weaknesses. Many city government web platforms were overly simple and functionally poor. Due to lockdown and social distancing, citizens naturally navigated online, attempting to access the services they had accessed before in person, but were disappointed to learn it wasn't possible. Municipal clerks could not attend to requests either due to inadequate technology, or worse yet, the lack of an alternative plan to the status quo.

When tip-top systems work well, you're likely to find a tip-top culture accompanying them. Systems aren't always in place, but if the culture of an institution or company is forward-looking, progressive in how they're thinking about better serving their constituency, and innovating (at their respective speeds), then trying times can lead to some novel solutions.

 One such solution came from a county clerk's office in Houston. The office was shocked at the sheer numbers of folks who wanted to get married in a pandemic. If there were any service they were expecting would slow, it would have been marriage licenses. The clerks couldn't perform this service as they did before (in-person), so they built out their site and placed the application and payment portions online. The results were impressive. The online payment gateway worked like a charm, and this led the department to brainstorm as to what other services they could navigate to the web.

 The increased urgency to modernize is now front and center, thanks to COVID-19. While a functional, resident-responsive website was always a value-added, the lifeblood department of municipal government would argue its an absolute necessity today.  

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