California City Uses IT to go Self-Serve for Services During COVID

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of El Cajon in California’s San Diego County did a couple of things that have made transitioning to virtual services somewhat easier. The city government tracked residents’ interactions with City Hall and thought about how citizens wanted to work with their local government, the city’s IT director said.

“We’re continuing to build what we’ve been working on for a while, which is the experience for our citizens and how they do business with City Hall,” said Sara Diaz, the IT director for the city of about 100,000 residents, speaking during an event hosted by Route Fifty. “For us, it was really important for us to know what services we provide.”

Diaz described a process where the local government “tracked every person that came into City Hall, pre-COVID, and figured out where they were going and what they were doing.” She said this process led to determining what services should be digitized.

The permitting system was in the midst of transition before COVID-19. The city started to digitize the permitting process late last year and went live online on March 1 of this year.

“We call it our virtual City Hall initiative and all of that kind of poised us to think about how citizens really want to work with us,” said Diaz, adding that launching citizen self-service for permits and plans allowed building and development to continue during the pandemic.

With pride, the IT director said, “we never shut down what we were doing.” In addition to continuing parts of the government digitally, the process of discovering what citizens wanted from City Hall has changed the physical landscape too.

Diaz said the city is using the pre-COVID information of citizens’ interactions with City Hall, not only to digitize priority services, but also to remodel City Hall’s first floor so that citizens can have a one-stop-shop for critical services when they come in the door.

Of the remodel funded by CARES Act dollars and the first floor services provided, Diaz said “It’s quick and easy and our staff is safer because they’re on floors two through six.”

“It really comes down to knowing what you do,” said Diaz, “and knowing how the people you work with, in this case, our citizens and our business, want to work with us.”

Dwight Weingarten
About Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is MeriTalk SLG's Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.