COVID-19 is accelerating city digital transformation and citizen engagement

A tongue-in-cheek question that has been doing the rounds on social media – “Who led the digital transformation of your company? A) the CEO; B) the CTO; or C) COVID-19” – could equally be applied to the public sector, according to city Chief Information Officers (CIOs), Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Data/Digital Officers (CDOs) who gathered for a recent virtual Cities Today roundtable.

During the pandemic, residents have turned to their city governments perhaps more than ever as a source of information, help and services, and cities have rapidly launched tools to support them.

Many of the examples of this may not be the most cutting-edge uses of technology but they demonstrate that cities are taking steps to understand their citizens in new ways, prioritising initiatives to make the best use of heavily stretched resources and paving the way for more joined-up services.

“The shock of the pandemic has driven change and transformation across city leaders, unlocking technological change via cultural change, and it was an incredible accelerant,” said Stephen Zoegall, Global Consulting Lead – Cities and Infrastructure, Accenture, who moderated the session. “We have seen change that would have taken years happening within a couple of weeks.”

Contactless services

COVID-19 is also driving a new digital-first approach. In August, Los Angeles’ Mayor, Eric Garcetti, issued an executive directive instructing all city departments to relaunch key operations remotely and “deliver back-to-basics services more efficiently”. The directive also requires departments to develop a comprehensive plan to make contactless services the norm for the long term.

Jeanne Holm, who was recently made Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation at the City of Los Angeles (she was previously the Chief Data Officer), said data is playing a key role in delivering on this. “We have focused on how we communicate information in a way that is actionable,” she said. “We have lots of data from many different sources, but we want to make sure that data is available to people in ways that they can understand.”

This includes the use of dashboards, colour coding and prioritising the information that people need most, such as whether city services are still running, how to get help, and the latest COVID-19 infection rates. The data dashboards also allow LA’s four million residents to make sense of what the information means for them by drilling down to the facts about their neighbourhood.

Citizens can access information via LA’s website as well as the Know Your Community app.

“The goal is to not just have digital at a computer terminal, but to have digital services available when people need them, where they need them, on the go,” Holm said.

LA is ultimately “looking forward to digitising every single city service”. A key initiative, which is now in beta phase and will underpin this, is the roll-out of the Angeleno Account. The “digital key” will create a universal login for LA residents to streamline their city services experience.

Mobile-first in Milan

Roberta Cocco, Deputy Mayor for Digital Transformation, City of Milan, agreed that particularly during a crisis, services must be prioritised and tailored. In 2016, Milan adopted an integrated Digital Transformation Plan based on four pillars: infrastructure, services, digital education and digital skills. This foundational work, which uses digital as an enabler “not the goal”, put the city on a good footing as COVID-19 took hold, Cocco said.

“We had to keep on being able to serve our citizens and to face their needs, so we moved many services to digital,” she commented, adding that her team has adopted the mantra ‘mobile-first, one click’.

This included enhancing the Digital Citizen Folder and making it quickly available as an app, enabling residents to continue to manage their municipal services, pay bills and apply for licences online during the pandemic.

“We accelerated to move this service from the website to an app because we understood that not all citizens have a strong [Internet] connection or an up-to-date device but they all have in their pockets a mobile phone,” Cocco said. “Our focus was to move as many services as possible, ready to be connected and used through mobile.”

For citizens that couldn’t use digital services at home, the city also partnered with more than 100 news stands across Milan, connecting them through an API and providing training for vendors, to allow residents to obtain certificates and other essential documents.

“This might look like an analogue service but behind this, there is a huge internal interoperable plan,” Cocco said.

In another example, Milan launched a WhatsApp chatbot with Facebook, which answers citizens’ common questions instantly.

“The value of these digital examples is that we do not have to be too complicated,” Cocco commented. “WhatsApp is something that most people know and can use so this is the right way to reach a population.”


Girish Ramachandran, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Technology Optimization & Transformation, City of Dallas, says the pandemic is driving a trend that was already emerging – the shift to self-service.

“Though these are challenging times for local government, service organisations and the community, this crisis also offers the opportunity for us to strengthen our ability to respond, learn and mitigate its impact by embracing a new digital transformation strategy,” he said.

Digital services implemented as part of Dallas’ COVID-19 response include: a mortgage/rental assistance programme, comprising a call centre that could scale to handle 10,000 calls per day and a website/app for financial assistance applications; a small business assistance call centre and website/app to share information with local businesses and help them access funding; a COVID-19 chatbot which provides answers on city-related services; and a visitor registration system, allowing citizens to schedule essential appointments with city departments, ensuring buildings don’t become overcrowded.

Ramachandran said these actions were prioritised based on the fact that 58 percent of people who were trying to come into the city offices or interacting with websites and apps were looking for information or services.

“Why not make it easy?” he said.

Scalability is also key – Dallas saw building permit applications go from 20 percent online to 83 percent. Load-balancing work was carried out to ensure infrastructure could handle increased traffic on portals and applications, as well as a cybersecurity upgrade during a time of increased threats to cities.

“I think there’s going to be a big push to the cloud,” Ramachandran said. “We all know COVID-19 has devastated workers and communities across the country but as we begin to explore solutions, we must not only focus on short-term relief, but also take steps that will set us up for long-term success.”

Freedom to choose

While digital city services have seen an uptick in deployment and adoption – at least some of which is likely to be retained beyond COVID-19 – choice will be key in future.

This will require cities to keep listening and responding quickly to their residents.

Craig Hopkins, Chief Information Officer, City of San Antonio, said in a crisis, his team can move faster to deliver services for citizens. “It’s not about what we think our residents need at a time like this; we see it in front of us and we can empathise with them. We’ve refocused a lot of our city services to a very specific group of individuals that need us most at this time,” he said.

But Hopkins emphasised that cities need to think longer term.

“As technologists or innovators, we shouldn’t be thinking about forcing people [to interact with city services in a certain way] as that’s missing the point,” he said. “We need to give them every opportunity to interact with us in the way they want to interact with us. It’s their choice – that’s the ultimate goal.”

Los Angeles, for instance, is holding workshops with community-based organisations to gather feedback from citizens – including homeless people, families and businesses – about how they want to engage with the city. LA also continues to work with ZenCity to monitor sentiment on social media. Holm said this helps to ensure that messaging is being communicated effectively and to understand what services people need the most.

“The opportunity in the midst of this tragedy is to do digital transformation in a people-centric, contactless way that doesn’t [deploy] so much sophisticated technology that you’re putting on departments that are already constrained,” she commented.

Several attendees noted that cities have been able to strengthen relationships with their residents during the pandemic and to reach people who are not typically app or data dashboard users.

Zoegall said: “Cities can build credibility and trust amongst citizens by being an honest broker of COVID-19 information. Trust is strongest at the local level, weakens as you move outward across a city, state and region, which is an important dynamic to consider.”

Closing gaps

The value of public-private partnerships was also a key theme during the discussion.

Zoegall said: “The fast mobilisation of public-private alliances throughout the pandemic has built the case for these partnerships and I suspect we will see more of them.”

Milan’s Cocco agreed, saying: “For Milan, public-private partnerships are essential. We can’t do anything without the support of the entire ecosystem, and especially the private sector.”

From the private sector side, Albert Shen, Verizon Smart Communities Executive, highlighted Verizon’s Innovation Learning Programme which has provided free internet access and devices to 264 schools so far, as well as expertise on how to use the technology. Verizon is also working with non-profit partners, education and technology experts to build and administer STEM-focused programmes for young people. This includes a goal to deploy 5G in 100 schools by the end of 2021 to enable “more immersive collaboration that can turn lesson plans into living, breathing, dynamic experiences.” This could include the use of virtual and augmented reality and 3D printing, for example.

Earlier this year, Verizon also acquired cloud-based video conferencing service BlueJeans and has rapidly used the platform to accelerate telehealth initiatives.

“Through this pandemic and beyond, the cooperation between the private sector and public sector is going to be key to finding ways to fill gaps and provide digital services to citizens,” said Shen.

While cities have made significant strides with digital services during the pandemic, those tools are of little use to residents that can’t access them. The elephant in the room has been the digital divide. As COVID-19 has shifted everything from work to study and socialising online, bridging this gap has shot to the top of cities’ priority lists.

“Closing the digital divide is a key consideration for new initiatives and programmes,” said Zoegall. “And we need to be conscious of making sure that new technologies like 5G don’t expand the divide.”

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This article was published on CitiesToday, on November 19, 2020