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Commentary: 7 Leadership Strategies for Counties’ Digital Transformation

Steve Monaghan, the veteran chief information officer for Nevada County, has published the fourth in a series of six essays for Rural County Representatives of California, a 39-member service organization that advocates for policies on behalf of rural counties.

Now is a critical time for rural counties to digitally transform how they do business. Counties have been automating labor-intensive business processes for decades; think timesheets, payroll and tax bills. However, digital transformation is not about simple automation of labor-intensive processes. It requires re-evaluating how we deliver services, interact with our residents and function as an organization, then leveraging innovative technology to make those deep organizational “transformational” changes.

The Need for Digital Transformation Now

The pandemic has forced and accelerated the need for local governments to re-evaluate their citizen service-delivery models and back-end business processes. This has propelled many digital transformations based on two main drivers.

First, residents’ growing demand for increased levels of services and the sophistication of those services. Residents receive this from all other sectors in their lives including online shopping, banking, recreation, education and health care. They rightfully expect similar service and convenience levels from their local governments.

Second is the county bottom line. County staff costs are typically the largest budget line item across our departments, and they increase annually. Counties simply cannot add staff to meet all the current citizen expectations and service-level demands. Core service levels must be maintained, even when staffing levels are dramatically reduced, as has been experienced during the pandemic and other local emergencies like wildfires, earthquakes and storms. This is an ongoing challenge as local governments across the nation are currently struggling to fill staffing positions due to increasing numbers of retirees and low unemployment rates.

Digital transformations can help to address both of these rural county challenges.

Digital Transformation Example in Counties

A good example of digital transformation is lobby management systems. These can be implemented wherever residents need to physically come into a county department’s public counter, take a number and wait for service.

New lobby queue management platforms enable walk-in residents to self-register at a kiosk and select the service they need. Constituents are then told the estimated wait time for when they will be called to the counter and be notified when it’s their turn. On the back end, the request is logged and tracked, and appropriate county staff are automatically notified.

Systems like these can even allow residents to schedule counter appointments from home, eliminating the dreaded lobby waiting time and uncertainty. When long counter wait times are occurring, residents can be sent a text to their phone telling them when their turn is ready, allowing then to visit other departments and remain elsewhere while waiting. The email and text appointment reminders and confirmations associated with these systems also help increase appearance rates.

Overall, transforming processes like this one free up valuable staff time, increase efficiency and improve customer experience. It also enables the capture of data and customer service metrics for the department to further improve their overall quality and efficiency, increasing service levels and lowering costs.

Rural counties have many dozens of areas where digital transformation can be pursued. A few include permitting, inspections, court scheduling, plan reviews, property assessments, safety-net services, public information requests, budgeting, boards and commissions, and performance management.

7 Ways County Leaders Can Drive Digital Transformation

Whether you’re a technology aficionado or not, digital transformation is required across counties and necessitates active county leadership and support to make it happen. Our citizens and budgets are demanding it. Strategies for county leaders to drive digital transformations across their organizations include:

  • Implement an active enterprise IT governance structure, a formal organizational framework that enables transparent and coordinated vetting of technology projects, investments and business process changes. Effective IT governance has numerous other benefits as well.
  • Promote a prudent level of risk-taking to drive innovation. Transformation at any level is challenging, and staff must feel safe and have the permission to take risks. Only with measured risk-taking can true transformation be made.
  • Take field trips – virtually or onsite – to learn from peer organizations. Local governments up and down California, as well as across the nation, have implemented innovative digital transformation projects. There is no need for a rural county to reinvent the wheel. County award programs from the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and the National Association of Counties (NACo) hold a treasure-trove of examples.
  • Stop evaluating technology projects on a singular return-on-investment basis. The era of high transaction automation that shows clear full-time equivalent staff reduction savings is mostly completed and now behind us. While digital transformation can produce real cost savings, it is much more nuanced, encompassing meeting citizen expectations, service quality, service-level resiliency, employee satisfaction, incremental efficiencies, cyber risk mitigation, cost avoidance (e.g. not hiring more staff), and the larger organizational strategy.
  • Start using data more strategically. Former Hewlett-Packard (HP) CEO Lew Platt once famously said: “If HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.” Our county organizations have vast amounts of data. Start leveraging the data to drive better decisions and transformations. Counties are very good at counting “stuff”; we need to improve on analyzing the stuff we count, how we process it, its effective impact, and how satisfied our residents are with the “stuff.”
  • Create the space and give the permission required for change to occur. The No. 1 challenge county departments face when embarking on any digital transformation project is having the organizational capacity to pursue it. A project that potentially could increase customer service levels, operational effectiveness, and save significant staff hours annually may require 500 hours of staff labor over two months to implement. Our busy departments with heavy workloads, staff vacancies and other challenges can find it almost impossible to make this upfront labor investment, no matter how exponentially large the potential benefits are. Departments need the permission to take a few things off the table or not add new items to the table while they pursue a transformation project. Creative, short-term supplemental staffing solutions can add the required capacity, too.
  • Promote digital transformation as real leadership work and a priority. With endless constituent demands and project work urgencies, government leadership and culture can default to a perspective that real work is processing the “widgets” in our queues. So, how do you drain the swamp when the alligators are biting at your ankles? There must be a balance between working “in the business” with “working on the business.” One size does not fit all situations, but many business experts place this at a healthy 80/20 ratio. Adequate ongoing time and capacity needs to be prioritized and allocated for working on organizational health, effectiveness, performance and transformation. Our counties are real businesses delivering a very wide variety of constituent services and need to be viewed in that perspective.

Digital transformation is much more impactful than simple process automation or re-engineering efforts of the past. New affordable and easier-to-use technologies and services, many cloud-based, have enabled even the smallest, most budget-strapped non-technology-oriented organizations to pursue and implement transformations. Pursuing the above strategies can enable our rural counties to meet many of our current citizen service demands and labor challenges. It requires deliberate intent and clear top-down prioritization by county leadership to make it happen. As author Karen Martin said, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

This commentary is the fourth in a six-part series that Steve Monaghan is writing for Rural Counties Representatives of California.
Steve Monaghan was Nevada County’s chief information officer for almost 23 years before being named director of the county's Information and General Services Agency. He is also the Nevada County Emergency Services chief and the county purchasing agent. Monaghan is a member and past president of the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA), through which he created and helps lead training programs for current and emerging leaders. Monaghan also serves on the Rural County Representatives of California’s Broadband Advisory Committee and on the Cybersecurity Program Advisory Board at California State University at Chico, where he received his bachelor’s degree in computer science.