Open Municipal Data, Part 1 – Ease OPRA, Optimize Budgets

Letting citizens access municipal data sounds like a bad idea, but many of New Jersey’s municipalities have done it and realized a tremendous payoff for everyone involved: municipalities realize cost savings and increased revenue. Residents appreciate the convenience as well as other advantages. Most importantly, what sounds like a long-term project is often much more straightforward than you and your IT team think it is.

Managing Public Record requests

Last June’s NJMMA conference reminded us that OPRA is more of a concern than ever. The bulk of OPRA requestors (real estate agents, homeowners and contractors) would prefer instant, 24/7 online access from the comforts of home. When they gather public information themselves through a portal, staff can concentrate on less mundane work and avoid the “7-day liability clock” associated with OPRA.

One SDL Portal deployment resulted in:

  • A decrease (of more than 40%) in the number of weekly OPRA requests
  • A 30 – 40% decrease in foot traffic at municipal hall
  • A similar decrease in phone calls, many of which were permit status inquiries

For Residents with Privacy Concerns

Residents may applaud the portal’s convenience but balk when they realize property data is public. Many don’t know much about OPRA or public information. Once they do, they’ll appreciate the fact that portal information can be redacted.

Example: when real estate agents need to analyze property prices in a neighborhood, they don’t care about homeowners’ names. But if they file OPRA requests to get the numbers they also get the names. If your town opens a portal and decides to redact them, those names are less public than if your portal hadn’t been launched.

Figure 1 – To allay residents’ fears, portal information can be redacted

Advantages beyond OPRA

Municipalities who activated portals to ease OPRA burdens found other advantages by switching on other functions. Pet licenses can be processed and paid entirely online; citizens can apply for permits, schedule inspections, register concerns and more, all at their own convenience and minimizing the hours of staff time they occupy.

While online PDF forms are a step in the right direction, portal-hosted forms:

  • prevent mandatory fields from being skipped, saving several back-and-forth cycles before forms can be processed
  • enforce data types (i.e. you can’t enter “1/12/2019” in the “Last Name” field)
  • tie directly to workflow… pothole reports and permit applications can go to the right departments without someone having to read, process and forward them.
  • Let the user choose how to be notified (text, email, in-app notification) when a status changes

Figure 2 is an example; Morristown, NJ’s citizens can report issues and help themselves whether Town Hall is open or closed, without occupying staff-hours, and without waiting for someone to read and respond to a PDF form.

Figure 2 – SDL Portal (shared by permission of Morristown, NJ)

For Your Information Technology Team

Your IT team might assume the worst when this discussion comes up. In this case, “the worst” includes standing up a new web server, integrating and synchronizing separate data sets, etc. Fortunately, none of that is the case.

As an example, the various SDL system components (including the Portal) are already tied to a single data set. Changes are reflected throughout the system, with no external synchronization needed. Everything is built into the system and tied to the same data. In fact, if your town has upgraded its website to SDL Sites, all the Portal functionality is pre-integrated and even easier to launch.

Cost vs. Benefits

For SDL clients, the incremental cost of portal deployment is about zero (SDL Portal is included with an Enterprise license). But there are other fiscal impacts: when a revenue-generating process is easy, people are more likely to comply.

This became clear in March, 2018 when New Jersey eliminated some maintenance and minor work permit requirements. Follow-up interviews showed that citizens and contractors had never objected to the costs of the fees. They resented the hassle involved in paying them. The result was the elimination of a process that generated significant revenue for many communities. Even when the resolution is less drastic, some residents often see a difficult payment process as justification for non-compliance and therefore non-payment.

Summary

Portal deployments can drive positive impacts on municipal income, on your residents’ perception of government, and on your staff’s ability to keep up. It can be a scary-sounding proposition, but a little investigation often shows that there are both greater benefits and fewer disadvantages than you might have thought.

Part 2 of this post (Open Municipal Data: Part 2 – Going Mobile) explores how you can let your residents interface with government the same way they interface with everyone else… namely, with a mobile phone app.

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