DevelopmentE-governmentFrom apolitical
April 20, 2020

A small town solution to digitisation

Local government may be pressed for money, but not ideas

Being a small town public servant can be tough.

Municipalities are the most constrained levels of government in Canada. They have limited legal and fiscal autonomy, which creates capacity, resource, and service delivery challenges.

These challenges are often amplified in small municipalities. Unlike their larger urban counterparts, small municipalities have small budgets and small staff contingents responsible for providing critical functions. Staff time is limited and the opportunities to step back and examine the state of the organisation or review existing services or processes are rare.

Even though the capacity and resources of small municipal governments differs greatly from their larger peers, the expectations from residents are often not that different when it comes to digital offerings.

We are all leading increasingly digital lives in both urban and rural areas, and we have the same expectations that our needs from local government can be met online. Digital services are perhaps even more in demand in sparsely populated rural areas where a car trip to the municipal office may take upwards of an hour. Putting services online is, therefore, a priority for many rural residents, politicians, and administrators. Lack of capacity – technologically and otherwise – is often the biggest barrier.

In January, Policy Ready and the Institute of Public Administration of Canadalaunched a new Digital Government Case Study Series. Since then we have detailed the digital transformation of the Ontario Student Assistance Program and the Ontario Environmental Registry. Both cases involved large digital shifts. The next case in the Digital Government Case Study Series examines digital transformation on a smaller scale: the creation of a municipal app in the small town of Grey Highlands, Ontario.

Overcoming challenges

An app isn’t groundbreaking digital innovation, but in a small, rural community it can be a lifeline to essential government services.

For governments with limited capacity, even creating a basic digital service like an app can be a huge challenge. So, when it’s done well, others should take notice. The case of Grey Highlands provides an example of how a municipality can embrace innovative digital change with limited resources.

Like many rural municipalities, Grey Highlands had long been searching for a way to optimise its customer service operations. The municipality is geographically large, meaning that getting services at the municipal office may require a drive of up to an hour. Grey Highlands also has a significant seasonal population, which means many residents are physically located outside of the community for long periods of the year. There was a long-standing desire to better engage with both groups. The solution, however, had proven elusive for sometime.

The inspiration for an app in Grey Highlands was sparked during a municipal innovation conference. The then Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Rob Adams, was impressed by the ways larger municipalities were moving forward on digital transformation and wanted his municipality to pursue similar initiatives. Adams empowered his team to begin looking at alternatives to the municipality’s existing customer service processes.

A small group of staff began examining the feasibility of various technologies. Ideas eventually coalesced around a mobile solution that would take the burden away from customer service staff at the municipal office and engage community members virtually. After abandoning several early attempts at using different web-based client servicing tools and unsuccessfully searching for a firm that could make an app that was affordable for the community, the development team in Grey Highlands embarked on the task of creating a municipal app themselves.

Failure, Adams preached, was permissible in Grey Highlands, as long as the intent was in the spirit of the public good

Capacity and resources challenges loomed large over the process — the municipality had no developers or programmers on staff and funds were limited. After examining several platforms, the team settled on AppyPie, which provides a subscription service for app design, similar to website design services like SquareSpace. AppyPie is a digital platform for creating apps and websites which does not require users to learn code, thereby opening up the process of app creation to those without a tech background. Not only was the functionality the right fit for the community, at $300 a year, the price was right, too.

By analysing traffic patterns on the municipality’s website, the design team was able to determine which functions, services, and information areas were most frequently visited. This information was used to establish the base functionality of the app. In total, the app took about one week to create and officially launched in February 2019. Residents of Grey Highlands can now get information about important services and interact with the municipality through their mobile devices no matter where they happen to be.

Culture as the driving force

The app would not have been created without a significant change in Grey Highlands’ organisational culture under the leadership of CAO Rob Adams.

Through primary interviews, we were able to determine that when Adams arrived in Grey Highlands in January 2017 he found a detectable amount of conflict within the administrative ranks of the municipality, as well as on council. Long-standing political battles were affecting staff morale and motivation, as directions from council were often unclear and politically charged.

Staff regularly field calls from other municipalities about how to create their own app. Their advice? Don’t delay, just get started

Soon after Adams was hired, several senior staff members quit. While large-scale staff turnover can be frustrating and organisationally disruptive, Adams saw it as an opportunity. He actively recruited several people from other municipalities and the private sector, trying to find the right personalities to fit the organisation.

At the same time, he set out to improve relationships, build trust among employees, and convince them that he was committed to meaningful organisational change. Adams also earned goodwill from the council by successfully managing several long-standing and controversial development projects. These early wins gave him cover to experiment with new and innovative projects.

As these improvements materialised, Adams began to promote the idea of measured risk-taking in support of innovation. Adams had spent much of his career as an entrepreneur and recognised the value of failure and how being given license to fail allowed for new ideas to be tested and eventually implemented. The lessons learned from failure are not valued as highly in the public sector as they are elsewhere, largely because public sector officials have a stewardship role over community wellbeing and tax dollars.

Failure, Adams preached, was permissible in Grey Highlands, as long as the intent was in the spirit of the public good.

The right ingredients

With supportive leadership, an improved organisational culture, buy-in from council, and a new perspective on failure and innovation, staff had the encouragement and confidence they needed to go about developing and testing the app on their own, without explicit direction from senior management.

Had the various organisational elements described above been absent or working at cross-purposes, this simply would not have happened. As such, it is possible to point to the following lessons for other governments to create a similar culture:

  • Communicate the type of organisational culture you want to create. It’s important to not only have a vision, but also present it to staff throughout the organisation.
  • Interact with staff on an individual level. Create space for them to discuss their ideas. Actively solicit new ways of working and thinking from them.
  • Encourage staff to experiment and find solutions to problems they identify.
  • Actively discuss failure as a normal part of service and policy design exercises. Reconceptualise risk and ensure that staff are aware of your personal and professional risk tolerate, as well as that of council

The Grey Highlands app has found a receptive audience — close to 10% of the population in the community has downloaded and used the app. The municipality has also won two innovation awards because of the app from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (P.J. Marshall Award) and the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (E.A. Danby Award).

Staff regularly field calls from other municipalities about how to create their own app. Their advice? Don’t delay, just get started. 

This piece originally appeared on Apolitical, the global network for public servants. You can find the original here. For more like this, see Apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed.

About this author

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Zachary Spicer and Joseph Lyons

This article is written by Zachary Spicer, the Director of Research and Outreach at the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and Joseph Lyons, Assistant Professor and Director of the Local Government Program at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.

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