TECH INSIGHTS: Virtual City Hall: How to Digitize Your Paper Forms in 5 Steps
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
What if you could improve your residents’ experience while reducing your costs?
In this time of social distancing, everyone is rethinking how to provide services. Digitizing forms, online permitting, and paperless licenses aren’t new. For years, cities and towns of all sizes have been investigating and investing in online forms to streamline operations and improve service. With the pandemic forcing everyone to reflect, it’s a great time to explore the benefits your city or town could gain from moving more services online.
But how do you start? It may seem overwhelming at first, but there’s a simple way to try it without major investment. Pick one area or department to start with and follow this 5-step process.
Step One – Identify Paper Form Opportunities
Not every form is an ideal choice for your first exercise in digitizing the process. To identify a strong opportunity, you need to balance ease of change with impact.
Start by compiling a list of your current forms. If that’s too broad, pick one department or area and create a comprehensive list within that smaller team. Then ask these questions:
- Is it highly used – daily, monthly, annually?
- Does it require payment?
- Once submitted, how many steps and people are involved in the process to finalize it?
- Does the form contain sensitive information that requires special data security?
If you can find a highly used form that doesn’t require payment and has only a few steps and/or people involved in the process to finalize it, you’ve identified a prime candidate.
Step Two – Explore Tools and Options
It may be tempting to dive into using an online form builder you already have or quickly add one to your website. However, this is a really important step to ensure the long-term success of this digitizing forms initiative.
Work with your IT department or partner to vet out some options and focus on these attributes:
- Is the form builder easy for a non-technical person to use?
- Is it ADA compliant?
- Does the form builder offer sufficient field flexibility?
- Are other municipalities using it?
- Does the software easily support payment processing?
- Does the form software integrate well with other applications?
There are several good options to choose from, so sometimes it’s about what fits your city or town the best. Cognito Forms is an example of one that we use regularly and is widely used by municipalities.
Step Three – Build the Digital Form
You kept it simple in step one by identifying an easier form to create, so we’ll keep it simple in step three too. You’ll want to meet with the person or team who uses the form or is most affected by it. Whoever is receiving the form, approving the form, or storing the form should be in the room. You’ll walk through the process flow together, map out what steps are required, and what action needs to be done at each step.
You are then ready to build the simplest form to achieve those requirements. Keep in mind that you are always able to add to and improve upon the form later.
Then test it. Have staff members not involved in the process fill it out, have IT double check that the data is flowing through appropriately, and maybe even ask your neighbor to give it a try.
Step Four – Publish and Publicize
Sometimes, teams think they’re done after the build phase. But it’s vitally important that you alert the audience who regularly uses the form that a new, better way is available! Share this on your website, social media, newsletter, and any other communications that will reach your intended audience.
Make it easy to find this new, better digital form and highlight its value to your audience. Here are a few good examples of cities and towns that make it easy to find ways to engage with city hall online:
Step Five – Analyze and Adjust
You’ve told people to use it, but are they? What do they think about the form? You must continue to monitor the form to see if it’s being used at the rate you think is appropriate. It’s also likely you’ll identify outlier bugs and issues as real people begin using the form in different ways.
Appointing someone to be the owner of the form is a good idea. Charge that individual with regular monitoring of the form to ensure its most effective use. Understanding how the first exercise in digitizing your forms goes will be invaluable as you look to tackle your next project!
A Real-Life Case Study – Decatur, GA
Decatur, GA is just outside of Atlanta and has a population of 23,000 residents. They’ve been investing in digitizing services for several years primarily because of the efficiency gains. However, it’s naturally played a positive role in the city’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Andrea Arnold, Decatur’s City Manager said, “The ability to automate multiple steps that would normally involve moving paper through the physical environment has been a tremendous time-saver and has allowed us to quickly shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Small Business Loan Program
In order to support small businesses in its community as they struggled with COVID-19, Decatur quickly set up a temporary loan program to offer access to much-needed funds. They turned to VC3 to help put together a secure digital application process.
With the opportunity identified and a pre-existing tool in place, we began building the form. The requirements included the ability to upload documents, a defined internal user group, strict data security, and the ability to close off access to the form once the program ended.
The approval process for the form was fairly complicated with multiple people and several steps. VC3 automated the notifications and worked with Decatur to ensure the appropriate people were notified. Finally, the workflow also needed to be contactless internally as many of Decatur’s employees were working from home.
The result was an online form quickly created to support the business community in a time of crisis. Many businesses applied and took advantage of this needed support.
Alcoholic Beverage License
In 2018, Decatur engaged VC3 to streamline its paper alcoholic beverage license by making it digital. The process was complicated with multiple steps, multiple people, and the need to track renewals.
We went through the process with them to identify the requirements for the form fields, the workflow, data security, and renewal notifications. Everything was built on Cognito Forms and now the process is automated to move from person to person for approval.
The result is a totally online alcoholic beverage license that saves hundreds of hours of time for businesses and internal staff.
Now It’s Your Turn to Go Paperless
Digitizing forms helps you streamline services, keep up with resident expectations, and improve operations. In some instances, it can be done easily with the right tools. In other cases, it requires a highly-skilled technology team to create the desired results.
About John Hey
John Hey has multiple layers of executive experience spanning more than twenty-seven years. In this time, John has built and guided high performing teams with a focus on world-class service delivery and consistency. In his current role as Chief Strategist at VC3, one of the leading Managed Service Providers in the country, John helps facilitate acquisitions, inform cybersecurity, and serves on the Leadership Team to bring his experience to bear on corporate strategy. John is deeply passionate about culture, diversity, and continuous learning. John holds CISSP, CBCP, ITIL, and Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt certifications.
VC3 is a leading managed services provider focused on municipal government. Founded in 1994 with offices across the east coast, VC3 forms partnerships with municipalities to achieve their technology goals and harness their data. In addition to providing comprehensive managed IT solutions, VC3 offers cybersecurity, website design, custom application development, and business intelligence services. Visit www.vc3.com to learn more.