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Virtual City Hall: The Evolution of Your Community Engagement

Rajiv Desai | November 2, 2021

4 Minute Read

Citizen engaging with local government via an online portal on their computer/mobile device.

Prior to March of 2020, concepts like a virtual classrooms or doctors’ appointments were nearly unheard of. Such things required physical, in-person attendance. Right? Turns out, we were wrong. And we quickly learned that so much of what we thought had to be in-person could function just as well, if not better, in a virtual setting.

The same is true for interactions between local governments and the public.

Many of the things we once believed to require physical, face-to-face time can be replaced instead by digital alternatives that offer more flexibility and better access for citizens and businesses alike. And while there will always be certain government services that require a physical presence, more and more we are finding that virtual is the new normal.

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The Accelerated Evolution of Community Engagement

Community engagement has evolved in such a way that almost demands the inclusion of digital capabilities, if not the complete substitution of physical or in-person interactions.

This evolution has been in progress for decades, but COVID-19 has caused a significant acceleration. Within the past 18 months, local governments and citizens alike had to quickly create solutions to a whole host of new issues. Many of those solutions involved moving typically in-person activities, like housing or construction inspections, to virtual interactions.

These recent shifts, along with the long-term move towards the ease and efficiency afforded by digital solutions, make it no surprise that the public is beginning to have high expectations for virtual experiences with their government. Which, as a result, has contributed to citizens looking to their government to provide a digital ecosystem that not only enables engagement and contributes to their ease of living, but which demonstrates to the community as a whole the ways in which their government is working for and with them.

The answer to delivering on those expectations? Virtual City Halls.

What is a Virtual City Hall?

In its simplest form, a Virtual City Hall is a digital portal for the public and local government to interact across all government functions – from requesting a permit to paying a fine to engaging in a conversation about a proposed ordinance and more. On the back end, it enables virtual access to the service providers, including city staff, elected officials, vendors, associated agencies, and all others who access or participate in the process of delivering services to the citizens or stakeholders. Holistically, a Virtual City Hall represents the full transition of formerly in-person activities and services to online or digital alternatives.

Virtual City Halls are made possible by technology that empowers the public to transact with government agencies at any time from any location through any channel.

With this advancement in technology and the increasingly digital expectations of citizens, the Virtual City Hall concept, which may have seemed revolutionary prior to 2020, has now become an obvious answer to a very real need.

Why Cities Should Adopt a Virtual City Hall Concept

Given that individuals tend to transform at a drastically faster speed than organizations or government bodies, and that individuals are already highly digital beings, we would argue that the idea of a Virtual City Hall is well overdue. When you consider the expanded capabilities and opportunities such a concept also offers to a city and its stakeholders, the need for this advancement is even more clear.

In our experience helping cities offer better digital experiences through our 3Di Engage Software platform, two things are clear:

  1. Governments and the public reap massive rewards when they’re empowered with high-quality virtual experiences.
  2. There’s a lot more cities can do to make Virtual City Halls a reality.

The Benefits

Beyond simply meeting the digital needs of your city’s stakeholders, Virtual City Halls provide significant benefits for both your internal processes and your external experiences.

  • Increased Satisfaction: Allowing citizens, local businesses, and even visitors to easily access information, communicate, and “do business” with the city on their time – whether that means reporting an issue with a local roadway or paying a parking ticket – improves the experience and engagement level.
  • Personalized Interactions: Integrating citizen data allows for a level of personalization – language, location, type of interaction/service – which not only makes your citizen’s life easier but makes engaging with your city feel like a real-life conversation.
  • Ability to Do More with Less: Resources are tight across the board. By integrating the tools and technology that automates and digitizes specific processes, you free up time and resources for other priorities – enabling your government to identify and align workflows to proactively deliver on services and solutions your community needs.
  • Improved Access to Services: By removing the burden of an in-person experience, you broaden the access to your valuable governmental services, expanding what it means to serve everyone in your community.
  • More Transparency Between Citizen and City: Manual processes of years past were littered with inefficiencies and unclear procedures. Moving the experience online gives citizens access to information they’ve never been privy to before. Things like “What’s the status of my request?” and “How long should I expect it take for you to process my payment?” is all laid out clearly, removing the uncertainty and increasing transparency and, ultimately, trust. Simultaneously, your government gains a clearer picture of the challenges the local community may face before they become larger-scale issues.
  • Create a Feeling of Belongingness. By creating a system that better serves everyone in the community, and simultaneously demonstrates the effort being put forth by the local government officials, you are better able to build trust and foster a sense of value and belongingness between the community and their government.

Overcoming The Challenges

However, despite the numerous benefits, every solution comes with its own specific set of challenges. Most commonly we’ve encountered three specific objections to a Virtual City Hall:

  • The Digital Divide: What about those without access to the internet? Some may argue that those who are most in need of government services won’t have access to said services should a Virtual City Hall be adopted. However, in no way do we mean for city halls to become a completely digital entity. In fact, virtually serving citizens who want to interact digitally frees up the time of in-person government employees to serve the people who do need or want to interact in person.
  • Security: Is it really safe? The short answer: yes. The long answer is, as long as cybersecurity is made a priority and your technology comes from reputable vendors who take it very seriously, security risks can be mitigated substantially.
  • Reliability: What happens if the internet goes down or the mobile app glitches? Quality software vendors will have incorporated creative solutions to keep the technology working. But even if the worst were to happen and the technology were to fail for a short time, in-person government officials serve as a reliable fallback option.

In short, overcoming these obstacles is possible today. But ignoring the shift in the public’s expectations for how they should be able to engage with you is not a sustainable approach. While many cities are still looking to integrate point solutions to solve this transformation, the full benefits will only come when a city holistically adopts the concept of a Virtual City Hall.

So that leaves just one question, are you ready to deliver the virtual experience your community craves?

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