With residents demanding 24/7 access to information online, cities across the state are improving their communications infrastructure, an imperative made more pressing by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their efforts create more than just increasingly sophisticated websites. The roles and duties of city officials are evolving in conjunction with their communication strategies, creating both strains and opportunities for strengthening the social fabric.
When a hailstorm pounded Louisburg in the summer of 2019, out-of-town roofers predictably began descending on the Miami County town about 30 miles south of Kansas City.
While a few went to City Hall to start the process of obtaining a permit so they could replace roofs, many others had permits waiting for them. They had verified they were licensed contractors and completed the paperwork online.
“It made a huge difference,” says Rusty Whitham, director of planning and zoning as well as codes enforcement for the city. “I think we did like 600 roofs last summer. Instead of having a line of people every day, 30 people in line, they had their office email me all their permits (information) and we were able to have their sets (of permits) waiting for them. It streamlined the process immensely.”
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Louisburg were able to conduct much of their business with the city online, a must if officials want to serve generations conditioned to expect the information they need to be available 24/7 at the touch of a smartphone screen. Making a phone call or showing up at a help window has become a last resort as Google became the first place many direct a question.
Government hasn’t led the revolution as residents shifted much of their banking, bill paying, shopping and basic research online over the past two decades. But government is increasingly responding to adaptive challenges to meet 21st century expectations.
City websites are growing more sophisticated. Before the pandemic set in and forced meetings to become virtual, it was increasingly routine to see council or commission meetings being livestreamed so residents who couldn’t attend in person would be able to stay connected.
The additions aren’t just bells and whistles added because they’re available, officials say. They reflect a tectonic shift in the way government does business.
That shift was accelerated by the onset of the pandemic, said Megan Gilliland, communications and education manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities.
“Websites became even more important” to have, whether it was to pay bills, get permits or share information about meetings, Gilliland says.
The pandemic forced some smaller cities that didn’t have websites to finally get one, she says. Learning how to livestream meetings was another learning curve.
“Our first and second class cities, a lot of them transitioned pretty well to doing online meetings” and other measures, Gilliland says. “It was definitely the smaller ones who struggled with it.”
It was particularly a challenge for small towns that were used to posting agendas on bulletin boards in cafes and other high-traffic businesses. When those were closed by the pandemic, she said, officials had to find other ways to get information out.
Even without COVID-19, city halls and their digital outposts were becoming not just places to conduct routine business but crucial information hubs that help shape what residents know about their communities and where they’re headed.
Drastic cuts in newspaper staffing in recent years mean that local governments play an increasing role in informing residents about tax increases, maintenance projects, street closings and other matters that impact day-to-day life.
It’s a change with significant consequences. It means city employees must take on another role for the community at a time when they – like other workers, public and private – are being asked to do more without…