When the smoke from the COVID-19 crisis finally clears, state and local governments may be judged by how well they shared information and continued to provide services while maintaining social distance. In other words, they may be judged by how well they utilized technology to their advantage.
Officials in Cowlitz County, Wash., believe that the use of established content management tools allowed them to better respond to the obstacles posed by COVID-19. The county, for instance, already had a central repository of agency documents in place before the disaster struck.
Without it, official business may have been severely hamstrung by social distancing requirements.
“I don’t know how we would be able to continue to do the job if we didn’t have access to the electronic repository,” said Elaine Placido, administrator of the county’s Building and Planning, and Health and Human Services departments. “There’s no way to be able to give people access to paper files like that when you can’t work in an office. We’re dealing with hundreds of permits that we were able to continue working on.”
Chelsey Pedersen, Laserfiche specialist for Cowlitz County Building and Planning, said the interconnectivity aspect of the repository allows for easy cooperation between agencies.
“You don’t have to be bogged down as an individual employee trying to help a co-worker from another department,” Pedersen said. “All of the information is in one central spot.”
According to Pedersen, the county began using such technology in 2005. The county’s understanding of the tools was “primitive” before staff gradually recognized all the potential applications and benefits. Now use of the tech stretches countywide.
As COVID-19 started spreading in Seattle during late February and early March, Cowlitz officials realized they needed to initiate a strategic response, Placido said. During mid-March, the county stood up its incident management team with an operations branch. Two days later, Cowlitz got its first COVID-19 case.
The public information piece has been the “most necessary component” of the county’s response, Placido said, especially given that local residents frequently hear news coming out of Seattle and Portland, Ore. The incident management team set up a website, www.cowlitzcovid19.com, to keep citizens informed, and Pedersen’s expertise allows for almost effortless updates.
“We’re saturated with information,” Placido explained. “Social media, electronic media, news media, print media. … Trying to give our local citizens exactly what’s happening locally has been really, really important.”
Cowlitz County has also been able to use Laserfiche forms to dynamically address practical challenges. Placido said the county has a “huge number” of long-term care entities. Given that individuals in such facilities are more vulnerable to COVID-19, the county needed to gather information about the resources and services of each facility. It took Placido’s team all day to collect such info by phone, so Pedersen quickly developed a form that facilities could access through a weblink and then conveniently update as information changes.
“We were able to open up a single file and have access to all of those completed forms, and we were able to send out an order to facilities that needed it,” Placido said. “A process that took 10 hours on Monday was taken down to maybe an hour’s worth of work on Wednesday.”
Another local challenge involved freeing up the channel for emergency communication. The county needed a way for residents to report non-compliance with the stay-at-home order so that 911 lines could be more open for true emergencies. Pedersen was able to develop a resource that fixed the issue.
“We had that set up within two days,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen thinks of the technology as a “blank canvas” that can be intuitively configured for specific departmental services. The local treasury in Cowlitz, for example, recently created a process where people can request extensions on property tax payments. Whether the business process is old or new, Placido stressed the importance of a local area having IT that can be nimble during a crisis.
“It’s really changed the way we have been able to operate within our community,” Placido said.