Municipalities Planning for a Post-COVID Future: Implementing the Virtual Town Hall

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Without question it has been a long spring for municipalities, coping with the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with cities and towns required to close most of their physical facilities and switch to virtual and online models. And now, while the gradual reopening of municipalities is underway, many may choose to keep certain vital services as virtual processes; choosing this route should be beneficial, although planning is required.

The concept of a “Virtual Town Hall” has been around for a while, but now due to COVID-19 and the massive disruption it has caused, there is a sense of urgency to implement a number of new virtual processes. Creating virtual operations that support critical municipal services includes:

  • Online submission and processing of various land-use and permits
  • Online sign-ups/payments for recreational programs
  • Access to and payment of Assessor and Tax Collector records and bills
  • Processing and payment of various Town Clerk related activities (Land records, dog licenses, etc.)

For many municipalities, creating virtualized external operations will no doubt be the best option in order to keep residents and employees safe, while at the same time maintaining a level of service that is not only expected but demanded.

It will also be important on the “internal” side of municipal government to implement virtual processes that do not necessarily involve a great deal of public interaction yet remain part of the essential operations. A good example of virtual adaptation is purchase orders. As of now, most municipalities have the ability to decentralize the purchase order process and generate electronic purchase orders, but many remain hesitant. In short, many municipalities still rely on the physical movement of paper (hard copy) purchase orders, vouchers and/or invoices to purchase goods/services. Now is the time to rethink these processes and better utilize the virtual systems.

Municipalities can do this by requiring all departments to enter their purchase orders electronically, as well as requiring them to electronically attach all required documents. Out of caution for COVID-19 and working remotely, we are now forced to create new electronic and automated processes/sign-offs to ensure the safety of employees and also implement better controls. The process is simple, efficient and, most important, safe.

Check processing is another area that can virtualize the process through ACH without much difficulty. While many municipalities are using a combination of hardcopy checks and electronic ACH checks, the move toward the latter is essential. Once again, this pandemic can be used as the catalyst to make this happen—in our new world it is simply more responsible to require all checks be issued electronically. This way, no one has to go the office to process checks or perform any ancillary services, and all necessary safety and health-related protocols can be followed.

Another key area of virtual services is one with which most municipalities are likely quite familiar by now—committee/board/council meetings. New laws enacted by a number of states suspended open meeting laws as a result of COVID-19, and with these suspensions likely to remain in effect for the time being, there remains an opportunity to allow boards and councils to continue to meet remotely. Virtual meetings—using Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Skype and other platforms—still enable public bodies to carry out their responsibilities while adhering to public health recommendations regarding social distancing.

Now that most municipalities have done this for the past few months, we are able to take a step back and rethink how we use these technologies to implement secure remote meetings across all municipal areas. This means establishing and documenting formal protocols, as well as validating and confirming what video conferencing tool will provide the best capabilities and security features for the municipality. It also means identifying who can attend vs. actively participate in meetings, in order to streamline communications and ensure only selected people can actively participate. Protocols should also be set in place regarding meetings being recorded and when it is necessary and/or required.

Many cities and towns are already familiar with these virtual processes; the key now is making them part of the municipal culture and implementing the technologies in a secure and efficient way. Doing so should lead to a seamless continuation of vital town services and will also contribute to the overall public safety of residents and municipal employees.

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