EP Award Promo

Urbandale a leader among cities offering online services


Urbandale will become one of the shining stars of e-government this spring when it installs new Web-enabled software that lets residents use the Internet to conduct business that used to require a trip to City Hall.

The city’s new Web site, which rolls out at the end of March, will include links to sites where users can make real-time credit card transactions to reserve park shelters or enroll in community education classes. If a pothole, burned-out streetlight or some other public works issue is reported online, the software routes an e-mail to the appropriate department and generates an electronic response to the person reporting it.

Diverting some scheduling activities to the Web may free up time for employees to devote to other tasks, City Manager Bob Layton said, but the primary aim of the new system is to give residents an option to conduct business at times most convenient to them. It’s a step toward the goal set a few years ago by the Urbandale City Council to use technology to better deliver services to residents, he said.

“The nice thing about this product is, if you get a wild hair at 3 o’clock in the morning to get in shape and do aerobics, you can get online and thumb through a catalog,” Layton said. “Rather than aerobics, there’s spinning, which you can do with your spouse, and you see there are three spots left.”

Because the online enrollment forms reflect the most recent registrations, a resident won’t sign up only to be informed after the Web transactions are reconciled with in-person transactions that the class is full. “It gives us a live snapshot of the classes, so if a class does become full, a wait list will automatically be started and handled in the background,” said John Andrasko, Ubandale’s director of information technology.

In Iowa, Urbandale is something of a pioneer in e-government. “In Iowa, there’s a movement to go in that direction, and you’ll see a couple of different types of attempts at this kind of accessibility,” said Heather Roberts, manager of information services for the Iowa League of Cities. “Most are taking a lower-tech approach, and they’re not trying to give people an idea of whether the class is full on their Web sites.

“The beauty of the software [Urbandale has] is that they’re using the same system to book people walking in the door as they are to book people on the Web, which allows streamlining and creates some efficiencies I think the citizens are going to appreciate,” she said.

Urbandale is the only city in the state to use the software, developed by and for a city in California’s Silicon Valley, later marketed by a quasi-public company called GovPartners, and now sold exclusively in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota by Cedar Rapids-based HRG Technology Group. The company plans to aggressively market the software to other Iowa cities by building on decades-long relationships established by its sister company, the 90-year-old municipal consulting firm Howard R. Green Co.

Though e-government is one of the “smart government” initiatives touted for the new information-based economy, many cities find it too expensive, Roberts said.

Urbandale spent $30,000 for the software and will have annual costs of $36,000 for fees and Web hosting. To help offset these expenses, officials are considering a $1 increase in all Parks and Recreation Department program fees, effective July 1. “We haven’t increased fees for most programming in more than a decade,” Layton said. “This is improving access opportunity, so it may be worth the extra dollar.”

At the March City Council meeting, Layton will present guidelines for Web-site advertising. Council members like the idea, he said, but want to carefully structure the sale of advertising, a previously untapped source of revenue for the city.

For many cities, the decision to move more services to the Internet is a matter of timing, Roberts said. “It’s expensive, and if the timing’s right, it makes sense,” she said. “You couldn’t get a city that purchased finance software three years ago to do this, but if it’s time to replace some software, they might.

“Urbandale has lined it up so it’s perfect timing to do something like that, plus they’ve also got a full-scale commitment to serving their citizenry.”   When Urbandale officials learned about the software, they were well into a project to revamp the city’s Web site, www.urbandale.org. “We have what I call a second-generation Web site, with some electronic brochures and a little up-to-date information about what’s hot in Urbandale,” Layton said. “But it doesn’t do a very good job of delivering services to residents.”

The challenge in the redesign was to add functionality to the site. “We weren’t sure how we were going to accomplish that,” Andrasko said. “We decided on GovPartner products in the last six months, and the two really fit like a glove.”

Urbandale bought two of the four pieces of software in the GovPartner package, RequestPartner and ReservePartner. RequestPartner is already being used internally. Residents still make reports on public works problems, for example, in phone and walk-in conversations, but they are entered into the computer to trigger the e-mail to the appropriate department and other accountability functions of the software. City workers have overcome a steep learning curve and now view the software as a vehicle for enhanced customer service.

“At first, people were a little leery, thinking it was going to increase their workload and drive down productivity,” Andrasko said. “We’ve actually seen the opposite of that. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time to enter information in the system, and [the worker] doesn’t have to know anything about a particular department to satisfy a request.”

The new system also saves wear and tear on residents’ nerves, Andrasko said. “Our citizens – our customers – are not constantly being routed through phone mail,” he said. “They don’t have to explain their request for a second time.”

Urbandale plans to offer more GovPartner software modules in the future, including one that would offer online recreation league sign-up and manage some administrative functions, and another enabling developers and others to apply for various permits online. The city expects to use the GovPartner software it already owns to conduct online surveys of residents.

“It’s a start for us,” Andrasko said. “We have a lot of other products planned in the future that will continue us down this e-government path to increase the efficiency and productivity of the staff while increasing customer-service levels.”

americanequity web 040123 300x250