Grand Rapids, Mich., a physical city headed toward an all-cyber city hall.

Mar 26 2018

Grand Rapids (Mich.) Aims for a Completely Digital City Hall

What does it take to go all-digital? One city has already started in on the roadmap to get there.

Digital transformation is taking government by storm, but how many governments have the nerve to go completely digital?

At least one: Grand Rapids, Mich., is seeking to transition to a completely digital enterprise sometime in the next few years.

With an eye toward completely eliminating the need for citizens to interact with government entities through letters, calls or in-person visits, the city launched a website in early February that will function as a “digital city hall.” The city’s previous website is being replaced with one that provides online payment capabilities for 54 city services and 24 business licenses. It also provides online info for hundreds of common 311 inquiries and other self-service features for citizens.

“Enabling digital self-service on our new website is the centerpiece of our customer service transformation,” Interim City Manager Eric DeLong said in a press release. “Our new site provides a digital city hall that is open for business 24/7/365. That means our community can access city services and information on any device, on any browser, at any time, from any place.”

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Grand Rapids Presents ‘Unified Voice’ on New Site

Moving away from traditional mediums of payment and services toward digital self-service was no easy feat for the Grand Rapids government. Becky Jo Glover, Grand Rapids’ 311 customer service center manager and the website redesign team lead, tells Government Technology that the redesign process took eight to 10 months to complete and required collaborating with 41 separate government entities as well as interfacing with residents and government employees that would be using the site.

Upon discovering what sort of services and design would be best for both citizens and staff, the city also rewrote all of its original website content to be more engaging and colloquial.

“The biggest difference in my mind between the old site and the new is on the old site every department acted independently,” Zac Thiel, a member of the website redesign team, tells Government Technology. “In fact, they all had their own website with its own navigation. You’d go to one department and that’s just where you were. There was nothing tying the whole thing together. With the new site, one of our main goals was to present a unified city with a unified voice.”

Glover stayed under the project’s budget, partially by enticing staff to work extra hours through internal incentives, such as gift cards, as opposed to hiring extra staff. Not all staff were immediately taken with the project, however, but Glover tells Government Technology that much of the staff changed their tune when presented with research or after department heads sat in and watched residents struggle to navigate websites and services.

“You’re forever changed when you think you’re so good at knowing what your community wants, and in reality, we are the antithesis,” Glover says. “It’s nobody’s fault. We’re government employees and we know our business, and we do it every day.”

Grand Rapids is already witnessing improvements from the new site, such as a move toward more electronic payments and less delinquent ones, thanks to a system that alerts customers to upcoming bills. The project is far from over, however, with the next phase of the redesign focusing on “adding services to the mobile application, enhancing the legislative module for city commission meetings and agendas, and enhancing” its electronic payment services. After that, Glover and her team will look to upgrade software that will bring them closer to their goal of a 100 percent digitally capable government.

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