Change is afoot in the government tech space, and managing that change was top of mind for everyone I spoke with at the recent GMIS Meets Conference in Florida. Evolving online services to meet the changing needs of citizens was a common theme among the hundreds of IT professionals and thought leaders from municipalities across the country I spoke to during the conference.
GMIS President-Elect and Director of Information Technology for Franklin Township, NJ, Bob McQueen, echoed this point, saying, “It’s our job to look forward and ensure we are offering better services to those we serve, both internal and external.”
“In today’s society, we have dual income houses, which means our residents are not available to come into the municipal building during ‘normal working hours,” said Bob. “Therefore, we need to meet the demands of these individuals by enhancing our services so they can take care of more business online. We’ve found by offering services online, our customers are more equipped to take care of business with the municipality.”
In my conversations at GMIS Meets around enhancing online government services, three key takeaways became apparent. These takeaways underscore municipalities' desire to digitize processes and go ‘paperless’, and the challenges they still face to make these desires a reality.
Key Takeaway 1 - Agencies Still Lack Alignment on Change Management
In many of my conversations, it was apparent that agencies still do not have clear alignment within their organization on the way forward.
There was a clear consensus that it’d be great to go paperless - IT Directors and CIOs can see how allowing residents to fill out everything online would save time and money. They also understand how improved online services canf help streamline internal processes, from time off requests to expense reports.
The primary objection though was that, while paperless sounds great, convincing all departments and members of the administration to make the transition is challenging. There’s a belief that it will take too much time to get everyone on board and that, ultimately, there’s no faith that administration will listen to IT’s recommendations.
This is somewhat true. IT and administration do seem to be at odds when it comes to digitizing online services, which is strange given administrators’ desire to meet accessibility standards (something we’ll discuss later in this article). Many administrators can’t see the forest (the ROI of digitization) through the trees (costs).
It isn’t the administrator’s fault though. Their objections stem from traditional, unwieldy proposals delivered by huge ERP implementation companies. These companies push an all-or-nothing approach that requires ripping everything out and starting over again with little promise of guidance and assistance. That’s not something anyone wants to deal with.
The reality today is that there are smaller, more nimble companies that work directly with agencies to guide them through their digital transformation. This modern approach means that agencies can convert their online services in a measured, thoughtful way that doesn’t interrupt the day-to-day for citizens or staff.
Key Takeaway 2 - ‘Paperless’ Means Something Different To Everyone
At GMIS, I made a point of asking everyone one question: “What would ‘paperless’ mean for your agency?”
I’d estimate 75% of the answers I received were, “It would mean taking dusty files from a file room or storage unit (which, by the way, is paid for with taxpayer money) and just scanning all those old documents into a document management system (DMS).”
Honestly, my mind was blown.
Converting online services to ‘paperless’ doesn’t mean retrofitting—it’s future proofing. We like to use an analogy of a flooded basement here at Kofile. (Not just because a flooded basement would be terrible if that’s where you store all of your printed documents!) If your basement floods, you don’t solve the problem by continually mopping up the water. First, you find the source of the leak. Then you fix it.
When converting online government services to paperless, the solution isn’t continue taking printed documentation and scanning it into a DMS. It’s building an end-to-end digital system that starts with the creation of an online form and ends with a secure, searchable database that makes everyone’s jobs (and lives) easier.
A DMS is going to be a mop for the water in your basement. An end-to-end solution is going to fix your leak.
Key Takeaway 3 - Accessibility Is Here, And Not Enough People Are Talking About It
At GMIS specifically, I felt like people weren't as focused on accessibility as they should be.
At Kofile, we discuss the topic of accessibility constantly in our day-to-day conversations. Accessibility is at the forefront of many administration initiatives as 2020 approaches.
Those at GMIS who did mention accessibility were, understandably, very concerned. The lack of accessible services, both online and offline, now has very real consequences for municipalities that are not prepared. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “Nearly 2,000 suits were filed in 2018 alleging website accessibility issues for the disabled.”
We’ve previously reviewed the key accessibility rules in our digital accessibility for governments infographic, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act and (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) WCAG 2.1. You can also review our article that details, which accessibility regulations federal, state and local governments should be following.
Which brings us back to a point I made earlier: administrations are focused on accessibility and ensuring online services are compliant; but at the same time they’re skeptical of digitizing online services because of the perceived risk and lack of return. They perceive digitization as a purchase, rather than an investment.
The reality is digital assets are much easier to customize to meet compliance standards than traditional paper forms. A piece of paper is an ADA compliance lawsuit waiting to happen. A digital form in the hands of a competent IT professional can be customized to meet the needs of every citizen. And partnering with a company like Kofile is an investment in the future of every online government service offering.
In general, GMIS was an enlightening conference and we appreciate the chance to connect with so many forward-thinking govtech professionals. While there is much work to be done in terms of educating on change management, standardizing on what paperless means and ensuring all government agencies are compliant with accessibility standards, the industry as a whole is making great strides and embracing innovation.
We’re proud to be a part of this industry and look forward to what comes next in the evolution of online government services.