City Leaders' Top Tips on Going Virtual

August 31, 2020 by Meredith Trimble

City Leaders' Top Tips on Going Virtual

A quick scan of public sector news illustrates the prevalence of virtual strategies to manage both reduced resources and distancing measures. Particularly challenging for cities has been creating effective processes to keep community development moving forward when buildings are closed.

In permitting, inspections, and planning, hurdles such as resource challenges, siloed departments, and public’s resistance to new technologies can complicate efforts to accelerate virtual solutions. Many cities, however, are successfully navigating these challenges in ways that others can replicate.


Sara Diaz


Kristina Raabe

Recently, Sara Diaz, IT director for El Cajon, California, and Kristina Raabe, senior business systems analyst for Renton, Washington, shared their best practices in a panel presentation on sustaining growth and connectivity in a virtual landscape. These two leaders leveraged technology in the form of a citizen self-service platform to overcome hurdles and transform community development processes. They successfully kept their communities engaged online. Following are some highlights from the discussion.

On the Challenges Virtual Solves

No move to virtual solutions happens in a vacuum. Each jurisdiction must understand its specific goals and priorities.

  • “Our journey started as an initiative to virtualize city hall. That didn’t mean closing our doors; it meant putting as many services as possible online. This addresses generational expectations and frees up time for more meaningful contact with those who do want to come in in-person. Online options for permitting and planning rose right to the top of what people wanted. It’s a high-volume service where time is critical.” –Sara Diaz
  • “We had to answer the question, ‘How do we guide our users to the right permit type?’ At a regional level, there was an online portal for contractors, but we faced challenges in getting the exact information we needed. Adding a question or permit type could take years within the multijurisdictional change process. There was also a challenge with third-party integrations, which broke during upgrades.” –Kristina Raabe

On Transforming the Customer Experience

Transforming the customer experience with local government to make it more convenient is a large driver in adopting virtual solutions.

  • “The most important thing is getting the customers what they need as quickly as possible. Being able to ask the specific questions [in the customer self-service system] that are exactly what we need to process applications and streamlines the process for everyone. There are things now that our permit techs never even have to touch.” –Kristina Raabe
  • “Not everybody works between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and not everybody wants to come down to city hall. We wanted not only to address the needs of companies doing lots of permits but also the smaller contractors, giving them the convenience of permitting from home or from their phones. Being online is what our customers wanted, needed, and expected of local government.” –Sara Diaz

On Staff Buy-In

Staff plays a large role in elevating the community development experience. Getting them on board with new technology, new processes, and new terminology is important.

  • “Having the people who actually do the work involved in the design of the system was key. We had our permit techs involved every step of the way.” – Kristina Raabe

On Flexibility and Integration

With things constantly evolving – from new reporting mandates to COVID-19 guidelines – it is important to have flexible, integrated technology solutions.

  • “Things like temporary permits and restaurants on the right-of-way during COVID-19 are things you can’t dream up in advance. We need to be able to respond right away and get a new permit type up within 48 hours – this is absolutely critical for today’s business environment.” –Sara Diaz

Hear more from these successful leaders on the webinar, including:

  • Enhancing user adoption of online systems
  • Creating a smooth implementation process
  • Maintaining a human touch through mobile apps and enhanced citizen engagement

Leveraging technology to streamline permitting processes and engage customers has never been more important. The cities of El Cajon and Renton took today’s challenge as an opportunity to transform tomorrow’s community development operations.

Related Content