The extraordinary impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on municipalities has been both far-reaching and well-documented. When local governments basically closed off all in-person services to taxpayers and moved to an almost entirely virtual system of service, the sheer breadth of the disruption and change was something we had never seen before.
But even now, as cities and towns slowly begin the process of reopening to the public, there is a strong chance that some of a municipality’s more public facing roles could remain in a virtual service. This gives local governments an opportunity to prepare for changes which could lead to better efficiencies and continue to protect public safety.
When it comes to local municipal services which deal directly with the public, two departments which are already largely virtual are tax collector and parks and recreation departments. In the case of the former, tax bills can now be paid online fairly easily with minimal need for in-person contact, and with the latter, signups for recreational activities can follow a similar model.
More of a challenge is found with the town clerk’s office, which often depends on the in-person exchange of documents and paper. However, some municipalities in Connecticut are beginning to experience success in moving some of these services into the virtual realm with a new online way to search land records. This is just one example of how a municipality can provide service virtually, but also demonstrates the need for an overall strategy to create a playbook for various virtual services. In an era where electronic signatures and notaries are becoming more of the norm, there is much that is possible regarding local services, which in the past required person-to-person contact. The key is to create the overall game plan and then move from there.
Another area which could benefit from virtualization is the permitting process: many cities and towns now have the ability to create/process permits by using electronic workflows. Through various permitting software solutions, there is now technology which enables permitting to be decentralized (for the most part), and it is something many municipalities may want to consider. The same applies to touchless payments, where there is literally no physical contact made. Through something known as Near Field Communication (NFC), payments can be made by a resident to the municipality by simply holding a credit card near a payment terminal to pick up a signal.
Municipal parking services are also being brought into the virtual realm; in New York City, there are currently two different apps now available for download, which allow for parking to be paid at 80,000 metered spots across the city. If it works there it can certainly work elsewhere. There is also the ParkMobile app, which is a mobile payment programhich encourages contactless transactions—while parking meters will continue to accept coins and credit cards, municipalities should be encouraging all customers to consider their own safety and the safety of workers by opting for mobile payments.
The bottom line with all of these technologies and possibilities is this: it is time for local governments to reassess direct services to residents. The COVID-19 crisis is the catalyst to do so; municipalities need to rethink and reimagine how they can provide and perform services with social distancing and teleworking in mind. They can begin to create their own virtual town hall without missing a step when it comes to delivering taxpayers the services they need and demand.
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