Procuring Technology and Innovation: Why it is Time for a Rethink
Now more than ever, it is imperative that local governments rethink how they do business. The needs of both residents and employees are shifting due to our increasingly connected world. This, along with the increasing limitations on municipal revenue generation and unfunded mandates from the State, compels municipalities to examine solutions that reduce costly overhead and provide greater flexibility for their workforce.
"Our communities are changing," says Julie Goodgame, director of marketing and communications for the City. "We are not an organization existing within a vacuum. We are a part of the rapidly advancing technological tapestry of the world. While this is a challenging time to do government work, we have an unprecedented opportunity to develop new, intentional models for 21st-century governance."
The City of Tyler is a lean organization serving a rapidly expanding regional hub. Like many agencies, departmental silos and rigid office hours and locations limit their growth capacity and hurt morale. Workflows rooted in email and paper processes caused breakdowns in communication and collaboration. Departments struggled to keep up with expanding workloads and resident demands.
"It all came to a head when sales tax fell short in 2015 and 2016, triggering organization-wide hiring freezes and budget cuts," said Benny Yazdanpanahi, chief information officer. "We were in a hole with limited resources, and we had to get out."
As the City was not in the financial position to add staff, they looked to technology to add capacity and improve communication. The City's IT department began researching software solutions that could integrate with the existing products the City used and scale to the entire organization. Ultimately, a unified communication and collaboration platform was selected for its interface and integration capability and its compliance with government record-keeping standards. This was followed by the implementation of virtualization software to give users remote access to the organization's network in early 2020.
"We began rolling out these platforms in September 2019," says Yazdanpanahi. "Early adopters were the City's Finance and Communications departments. They took advantage of the rollout to transform the City's budget, strategic and editorial planning processes in the hope that others would follow."
Often, the benefits of new technology may be slowly realized because they depend on end-user adoption. While some departments jumped on the new remote and project management options afforded to them, Yazdanpanahi predicted that a full transition by all departments would take many months. Then, something completely unexpected occurred- a worldwide pandemic.
"The coronavirus pandemic accelerated our organization's adoption of these platforms-no question," says Yazdanpanahi. "We went from around 400 users within the platforms to more than 800 of our 1100 member staff. Importantly, we did not see a spike in email during this transition to telework due to our use of these systems."
What Tyler did realize was a 328.3% increase in platform messaging, with their workforce reporting a diminished reliance on email and increased time savings. As people could no longer gather inside City buildings, all internal, board and public meetings became virtual, with residents able to join through a clickable web link or by downloading a free companion app to their phone. This made meetings more efficient, as there is no commute and they could be recorded for individuals with scheduling conflicts. Anecdotally, several departments reported increased productivity due to virtualization.
"Virtual communication and collaboration have also been vital to our regional emergency response to the virus," adds Goodgame. "Because the solution we chose allows anyone with an invitation and an email address to collaborate within the platform, we coordinated a multi-agency response with no additional costs to the City."
The City of Tyler, in partnership with Smith County, Northeast Public Health District and 30 communications professionals from the State, local hospitals, schools, universities and representatives in the outlying communities, utilized the platform to coordinate the Joint Information Center (JIC). They created a cross-organizational workspace to collaborate on operations and messaging and respond to resident requests and concerns.
"To quote the Christus Hospital System, 'We handle communication for all of Northeast Texas and Louisiana, no city or parish or anyone else is responding to this crisis as well as you (City of Tyler) are in East Texas,'" notes Goodgame. "This would not have been possible had we not had the infrastructure to support remote work and collaborative workspaces."
Collaborative software is a relatively low-cost, high impact solution for any government agency addressing capacity, communication, and collaboration issues. As the City of Tyler moves forward, they plan to utilize the platforms' built-in analytics features to understand workforce behavior and identify additional opportunities for meaningful culture change.
"One thing is certain. We have embraced a new way of doing business, and we are reaping the rewards of this radical culture shift," says Goodgame. "This has positioned us to meet crises, and the challenges of future years, head-on."