'Digital City Hall' for Indianapolis and Marion County sets a trend for municipal services

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Just over a year ago, the government of Indianapolis and Marion County set out to do something audacious — transform their existing government website into a “Digital City Hall,” a modernization effort that would ideally conclude with the same services being accessible to citizens visiting their government’s website as those present at the brick-and-mortar city hall.   

The goal of the modernization effort is to equally support the needs of the citizens in the county and the city, Chief Communications Officer Abbey Brands told StateScoop in June. Indianapolis and Marion County are equal parts of a “uni-government” that shares public services between the two entities. The IT needs of city and county agencies are handled by the Information Services Agency (ISA), which is also leading the website initiative. 

StateScoop chronicled the initiative, dubbed “Shift Indy,” last June, when the website only had four public services accessible on it. Since then, it has grown immensely, more than quadrupling the number of ways citizens can perform tasks online that used to require a trip to city hall or the post office, with more innovation to come in the near future.

The growth has other cities and states are taking notice. Boston, Austin, and Michigan, among others, have reached out, and Orlando is in the early stages of its own digital overhaul. 

Change directives

While my.indy.gov, the front end of the initiative, officially launched in April 2017, Deputy Director of IT Strategy Mark Warner told StateScoop that the process really began that January.

“We started off way early on with a steering committee that consisted of representatives from the court side, from the city side, county agencies, law enforcement and the city-county council,” Warner said. “We created the steering committee up front to get buy-in from the appropriate branches.”

The steering committee provided ISA with a list of guiding principles to help prioritize what services would benefit citizens the most and should be implemented first. Innovations that ranked high were those to save constituents time, reduce barriers to access for underserved constituents and eliminate the necessity of physically visiting the city-county buildings.

“We’re really trying to focus this on the public population that doesn’t need to drive to the city-county building to conduct their services or maybe work multiple jobs — the single-moms, the elderly, or those that just aren’t as up-to-date or have the extra cash to really pay to park or come down here,” Warner said. “That is still the core of our vision, and as we’re going through this, we’re uncovering more things and getting a lot of good external feedback as we outreach into the community and what they’re looking for as far as what’s working and what’s not.”

Brands and ISA have taken public feedback seriously in their search for effective solutions. After initial meetings with government agencies, they had more than 1,000 requirements, and have encouraged citizens to reach out a multitude of channels — Twitter, Facebook, email, and blog comments — as well as doing their own outreach, both internally in government agencies and externally to different businesses and communities in Marion County.

“[The Steering Committee members] were also acting as change leaders, to go back to their large agencies and spread the gospel of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how its going to benefit them,” Warner said. An external advisory committee is also in the works, Warner told StateScoop, that would engage community leaders and institutions like libraries, the Chamber of Commerce and nonprofits in reviewing the efficacy of potential new services and help ISA spread the word to different constituencies about Shift Indy.

Shift Indy has even more in store for 2018.

The tipping point

“This next year will be spent applying what we’ve mastered, while we continue to build, learn and uncover more. More services, more content, more outreach, more opportunities,” Chief Information Officer Ken Clark said in a recent blog post. 

Both Warner and Brands confirmed to StateScoop that the next big service release is coming soon, adding to the more than 20 services available already. A new landing page will be coming soon, Warner said, plus the first iteration of a central site-wide search bar. The search bar will be mobile-friendly, as ISA has been building the website with mobile browsing chiefly in mind. The inclusion of a search bar comes at an important time, Warner said.

“We’ve hit that tipping point regarding the site’s content library where we need to start having that search where people can find what they’re looking for a little bit easier.”

In December alone, the site received 2,182 homestead and 2,154 mortgage deduction submissions, representing almost half of the total deductions submitted on the site since the services launched in May of 2017. Brands and Warner tell StateScoop that the uptick is at least partially to do with seasonality, as deductions must be filed by the beginning of the next tax year, but site growth overall is promising. Two-thirds of users are new visitors to the site, and new tools —  trash and recycling pickup location identification, school district identification, a campaign finance search tool and more — will only give citizens more reason to utilize the site. 

The digital transformation doesn’t just benefit constituents, though.

Communication is key

Warner tells StateScoop that cleaner, more accurate data is coming in as a result of the digitalization of processes that used to be manual.

“It’s not handwritten anymore, so it’s not taking somebody at the auditor’s office trying to decipher what they’re trying to put, which allows potential for human error entry. The process itself is now taking probably no more than 20 minutes. Once an application comes into the backend of the system, its automatically grabbing the property-assessed evaluations from the property system, calculating it, putting it in there and then a staff goes in to approve, deny or pend it, and then it sends an instant email to the customer.” 

Brands and Warner have also found ways to make life easier for themselves and the ISA. 

“Early on,” Brands said, “when we saw this gigantic list [of requirements] it almost felt exhausting and overwhelming, but knowing that a lot of these small pieces, while individual, are still at the root the same service helped us get our arms around it.” 

In order to accelerate the process of rolling out new services, ISA has focused on integrating similar parts of different forms into the same document, among other strategies. 

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Brands said, referencing the similarities that many relevant forms share among the site’s different services. “Every service will have little one-off intricacies or things that come from the state or different requirements, but once you kind of master the ability to build a form, you’ve mastered the ability to build a form. Reusing some of those designs has been essential to accelerating this process.”

Warner explained how such integration is an inspiration for the namesake of the whole initiative. 

“That’s really where the shifting is coming from,” he said, “shifting away from all these one-off forms that people have to re-enter all their demographic information into, and trying to consolidate that a little better. But on the back end, that creates it own complications because each of those one-off forms may have been going to a separate system, so we’re working to combine those to then shoot off the data to an API to the appropriate systems and still have them be the source of truth.”

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digital city hall, Digital Services, Indiana, IT Infrastructure, Ken Clark, Marion County, Mark Warner, Modernization, Shift Indy, State & Local News, States, Tech News, Websites
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