Poor Man’s Solution: How a Small Town Created Transparency and Efficiencies Through the Smart Use of Technology
In 2013, the Town of Allenstown (4,322 population) began a system-wide effort to achieve better transparency and efficiency by exploring and implementing technological solutions. The focus was not so much on technology as it was on attaining the objective of streamlining the town’s administrative processes with the goal of making more information available to the public faster. Before 2013, the town’s paperwork and processes were antiquated and inefficient and we knew technology was part of the solution.
The Town approached the problem and developed an overall strategic vision of where we wanted to be. It was apparent from the beginning that solutions to acute problems would not be able to achieve the goals we were trying to achieve. We began a system wide phased process to achieve our transparency initiatives and efficiency goals.
The LEAN process was used to focus on the accounts payable process. LEAN was developed by the Toyota Corporation to enhance efficiency and eliminate waste in the production of automobiles. The State of New Hampshire has invested heavily in the LEAN process for its various functions. Some towns in the state are doing the same. Our accounts payable process was byzantine to say the least. Vendors were not being paid in a timely fashion and the error rate averaged 16%.
The LEAN analysis exposed several limiting factors. The use of paper documents resulted in wasted time and resources, and the inability of the staff and officials to access paper documents in a timely fashion added time to complete the processes. Such costs as paper, copying, filing, postage, check processing, and transporting documents were adding up for the town.
The most economical and efficient solution was a paperless system. This required technological solutions to replace the use of paper processes. The new processes would challenge the staff and required a new way of thinking. The following processes were implemented:
Cloud IT Platform-All departments would need to be on a common operating platform. The town eliminated individual servers in each building and went to a virtual private cloud. This allowed all departments to collaborate on projects and share information. Staff in all departments are now able to access their workstation desktop through laptops or tablets through a secure socket link. This mobility allows for greater flexibility and resilience during disasters. It is particularly helpful for the mobile applications used by our police, fire and highway department.
Digitization of Paper Records-The planning, zoning and building records were filed in four different ways. These paper records were scanned through a contract with Ricoh Corp. into digital property files allowing access to all town personnel at fixed locations as well as in the mobile environment. The ability to search and retrieve documents took days before. The process now takes seconds to search those property files. The town is able to respond to requests for these documents very quickly today and are able to email the documents to businesses and residents within minutes. You are advised to take a quick view of RSA 33-A which applies to the retention of municipal records before embarking on this paperless process. Records which are required to be kept for more than ten years must be saved in a PDF/A format if kept electronically. Older documents needed to be scanned into directories. However, one of our challenges was getting away from the cycle of creating more paper documents which would need to be scanned. Documents created in Word are saved as PDFs and saved in a PDF/A format. OCR (Optical Character Reader) allows searches of PDF and Word documents for specific words or combinations of words. This is a very effective method for PDFs which are converted from a Word document. A document which is scanned from a paper document provides limited capability for OCR. The need for documents to exist in a digital format from cradle to grave was essential.
Electronic Signature-Many of the documents we use require authorizing signatures, such as manifests, payroll change forms, resolutions, and other such documents. The town reviewed several options to eliminate the quill and ink well in favor of an electronic signature solution. We choose RightSignature as our web-based platform to have documents signed. The security features produce a digital checksum as well as identification of IP addresses and tracking. This solution allowed members of the Board of Selectmen to review documents on their smartphones, tablets or laptops and execute documents (after approval at a public meeting). This was particularly helpful with AP and Payroll manifests. We process AP each week. The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) was passed by Congress in 2000. Again, you are advised to review 15 U.S.C. 7001 as well as New Hampshire RSA 294-E before considering the implementation of the electronic signature process.
Web Forms-The Town began a move away from typical documents to web forms. We have a contract through SeamlessGov to provide this platform to manage these documents. This allows for the use of individual pieces of data within a document to be searched for information.
Electronic Payments- The payments to vendors and employees was solely by paper check. The Town began a process of transitioning our employees and vendors to EFT or ACH electronic payments. All of our employees agreed to this process. Many of our vendors have transitioned to the electronic payment process as well. The vendor submits an invoice via an email which is processed in our weekly AP process. The vendor receives payment deposited directly into their account. This process speeds up payment and reduces our administrative costs. No checks, no envelopes and no postage. This allows for a process from beginning to end in which documents never exist in a paper format. The electronic backup documents are stored in our financial software package, Infinite Visions.
Public Meeting Documents- Achieving our transparency goals was a multifaceted undertaking. Allenstown is an SB2 town meeting form of government. This method of direct democracy relies upon an informed citizenry to make critical decisions on how its local government operates. The Town constantly hears concerns from voters who are being asked to make complex decisions without adequate information. Accordingly, the Town took a multi-pronged approach to this issue.
We created a specific icon on the main page of our website where voters could follow the town meeting and budget process (cycle). The process begins in May with the guidance to department heads issued by the Board of Selectmen and ends with the actual voting session of town meeting and the results of the vote. Detailed budget information is provided in this area as well as a voter’s guide.
The website agendas for the various boards have the specific documents related to those agenda items posted on the agenda. This allows for residents to be informed and allows for greater and more meaningful public input to the various boards. Residents, officials and the media are able to access these documents on their personal devices while in the meeting through the public WiFi provided in our meeting rooms. Our website provider, Virtual Towns & Schools, provides a subscriber portal allowing residents to have agendas and meeting minutes of any of our boards emailed to them automatically when those documents are posted on the website.
The Board of Selectmen agenda attachments include the weekly AP manifests. This allows residents to see where each dollar is spent and to which vendor. It is not quite an “open checkbook”; however, it is a major step in that direction.
Email Encryption- The Town implemented managed email through Certified Computer Solutions Inc. and .gov email addresses. This provided a higher level of security. However, with the ever changing sometimes hostile cyber environment we operate in today, we needed to enhance the level of security. The quantity of personal identifying information, financial data, HIPPA and law enforcement documents that are being sent and received via email has grown enormously. The need to secure this information from ever growing threats is apparent. The Town implemented an email encryption solution through Zix Corp. in January of 2017. This solution provides a high level of email security which is common practice in the financial and health care sectors and recognizes that municipalities have a similar obligation to protect the sensitive information of employees, business partners, patients and victims.
If you embark on this technological path, you must have an overall strategic plan in place to achieve these efficiencies and transparencies. Your existing processes should be reviewed through the LEAN process or some other method to analyze the issues and map out solutions. Some of those solutions require implementation of new technologies while others require human solutions. We had to implement what I refer to as “a poor man’s solution” to some of the processes. There simply is not enough money to do everything that needs to be done.
Our process has been four years in the making and the Town still has much to achieve. One of our goals was to allow access to a very large volume of our public documents through a portal on our website. While the website has many documents, many others would require a search and management platform that we do not presently have. We looked at several solutions which would allow someone to search documents such as property files through a link on our website. The cost of that type of platform was as much as $45,000 to implement and $16,000 per year in annual software license costs. This cost level is clearly prohibitive for us at this time. The cost benefit analysis demonstrated results which were less than positive. We implemented a process which was less costly: “the poor man’s solution.” When we had the property files scanned by Ricoh we had them identify those document files with a defined naming convention that allowed for more effective search parameters. For example, the property files were named by map and lot and street address. This allowed staff to search using any of the pieces of that information to locate the property folder or document(s) being searched. We have a directory of folders by map which are then broken down by lots within that map. This directory is nothing more than a folder on our common drive. No additional software is needed.
Shortly after we implemented this system a resident called to obtain all the documents relating to her property. I was able to search the directory within seconds and email the entire file containing 178 pages within a minute. This process would have taken several days of staff time before when the files were in a paper format in several different locations. The resident would have had to come to the Town Hall, lose work time, and pay for those documents to obtain a paper copy. In fact, the chances of us not finding all the applicable files would have been much higher if they were in a paper format. In this case, we were able to achieve considerable efficiencies, cost reduction and most important a higher level of customer service. The Town was able get closer to our goal of providing documents to residents seamlessly. The end game is to provide access to these public documents when the resident, business entity, reporter or other governmental entity needs it faster and at anytime of the day or night.
The rate at which business activities occur is faster than ever. The need for the public sector and specifically municipalities to make information available is critical to the success of the private sector. Equally important is the need to provide timely and complete information to the citizenry allowing them to make the ever more complex decisions they need to make. Social media and “fake” media provide an outlet in which inaccurate information can be distributed. Municipalities must be able to produce factual information through the various public documents that exist to allow the public to obtain the correct information.
Shaun Mulholland is town administrator for the Town of Allenstown. Since 2016, Shaun has served as a Board of Director with the NHMA. Shaun can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 603.485.4276 ext. 112.
- Some 75 percent of Allenstown vendors are submitting their invoices electronically now; Allenstown is sending 62 percent of its payments electronically.
- Time to process payments has been reduced from 11 weeks to 7 days.
- Cost reductions equaled some $13,000 in the first year, although it was not a full budget year. Projected reductions were nearly $20,000 for the first full year.
- There are some relatively low-tech solutions, such as creating a set of folders for property tax information, that are low in cost to implement and maintain.