Digitizing municipal governments: 3 of the most critical areas to focus on

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The past several years have seen multiple layers of government in Canada investing a substantial amount of time and resources in transitioning to increasing digital-based service delivery. We have seen this in our federal and provincial governments- the Canada Revenue Agency, for example, has greatly modernized its online services- such as MyCRA and SecureKey- for people to access tax-related services and pay outstanding bills online; and also apply for Covid-19 related benefits such as CERB (Canada Employment Recovery Benefit) and its new spin-off benefits such as the CRB (Canada Recovery Benefit). With this in mind, it seems that the municipal level of government still has a ways to go in catching up to its federal and provincial counterparts.

Municipal governments have always been considered service delivery agencies- and as the level of government that is truly closest to the people- it is crucial that a convenient user experience and ease of accessibility must be central elements in order for these institutions to operate smoothly and efficiently for their constituents.

Municipalities are more burdened than ever before with higher levels of government downloading more services and responsibilities on to them- with limited financing options (property tax being their single largest available revenue base). Furthermore, infrastructure is aging, population demographics are shifting, and cities are deeply in the red due to Covid.

In the years ahead, digital transformation of municipalities could be a key factor in addressing many of these challenges- by streamlining existing services, incurring major cost-savings, and offering citizens a modernized approach to dealing with their municipal government- in everything from voting to paying taxes to booking routine service calls.

The Division of Local Services in Massachusetts’ Department of Revenue lists three core areas in digital transformation that have come from its recent modernization overhauls- which municipalities in Canada and across the world could greatly benefit from utilizing themselves:

1.     Shifting to electronic forms

Shifting to digital forms- for matters ranging from traffic violations to construction project approvals- has saved 10,000 hours of labour in Boston’s city government. As municipalities store thousands of documents, trying to analyze and use them with respect to paper format is a nightmare- and a costly one at that. Accenture (www.Accenture.com) states that 59% of middle managers admit to missing crucial information because they were unable to locate the correct documents. Furthermore, employees misfile 20% of their paper documents and waste an average of 6 weeks per year looking for them (imagine the payroll expenses alone this incurs!) 

2.     Digitizing paper documents

Paper documents are notoriously wasteful. For example, a standard filing cabinet costs $25,000 to fill and $2,000 per year to maintain (in $USD). An average document gets copied 19 times- and 70% of the total costs of filing papers are salary-related expenditures alone! With these figures in mind, imagine how many missed opportunities there have been to use these funds instead on city projects that could benefit so many people and projects in need- such as homeless shelters, fixing roads, or even cleaning up local parks.

Digitizing existing documents would make accessing them so much simpler, greatly reduce labour costs (and wasted work hours), and allow for greater citizen transparency.

3.     Automating the approval process

Automation can get things done- such as tendering bids and completing small projects- in much faster time frames. Digitization without automation simply doesn’t work; as there needs to be reduced strain on municipal employees. Digitizing municipal government comes with the primary goals of reducing administrative costs and burden. Utilizing a streamlined automation process reduces administrative burdens across the board in all departments- freeing up employees to handle higher-priority tasks where direct human-to-human contact is absolutely crucial.