In this episode, we dive into Richmond’s revamp of their 311 service (RVA311). The episode will be part 1 of a 2 part series on Richmond’s re-launch of their citizen request platform.
Like every other local government, Richmond, Virginia has contracts with loads of vendors. And while we can agree that more than enough due diligence occurs as a part of the procurement process, it’s surprising how little ongoing review or vendor management is done once that contract is signed. As a result, local governments large and small are wasting an enormous amount of money on everything from unused features or duplicate tools to mismanaged licenses.
The City of Richmond’s Citizen Service & Response team aims to change this.
Pete Breil, Director of Citizen Services and Product Manager, Tina Haney join me today to talk about the work underway in Richmond to revolutionize their 311 service, a lot of which was done by the city itself - not the vendor.
So let’s see what the team in Richmond is up to and hopefully learn how your local government can use some of their strategies for more efficient and cost effective vendor engagement.
Featured government: Richmond, VA
Episode guests: Pete Breil, Director of Citizen Services: Tina Haney, Product Manager
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Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the Wiki for local government innovation. And on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host.
Like every other local government, Richmond, Virginia has contracts with loads of vendors. And while we can agree that more than enough due diligence occurs as part of the procurement process, it's surprising how little ongoing review or vendor management is done once that contract is signed. As a result, local governments, large and small are wasting an enormous amount of money on everything from unused features or duplicate tools to mismanage licenses.
The city of Richmond citizen service and response team aims to change this. Pete Breil director of citizen services and product manager, Tina Haney join me today to talk about the work underway in Richmond to revolutionize their 311 service. A lot of which was done by the city itself, not their vendor. So let's see what the team in Richmond is up to and hopefully learn how your local government can use some of their strategies for more efficient and cost-effective vendor engagement.
Thank you so much for joining me today. Can you each quickly introduce yourself and share a bit about your roles?
Yes. Hi. My name is Tina Haney. I am the technology manager for the city of Richmond and our 311 citizen service and response department.
And I am Peter Breill, the director of citizen service and response for the city of Richmond. Uh, we're responsible for improving citizen engagement and improving responsiveness of city services.
Great. And Tina, I know as a technology leader in Richmond, you've been appointed to essentially serve as a product manager for the city's 311 service and to improve upon that citizen service. Can you give us a brief overview of who you're engaged with from a vendor perspective and what your work thus far has entailed?
Uh, sure. Yeah. We have been working with a vendor called AvePoint Inc. Their product is called Citizen Services, uh, and what we have been doing with them when we first began, we had a gift contract after they relocated to the city. They gifted the city, some of their services. So when we came aboard, we were already working with that gift contract, but because it was a gift, we were not really allowed to do that much with the technology or the tool. So we've been working within some boundaries and confinements initially to try to make improvements, focusing on a functionality for that tool that would be beneficial to anybody who utilized that tool. Administrative functions, abilities to control the request types and the form fields, and just some general integrity issues with the ability to be prompted if you're deleting something that is widely utilized so that you don't create some sort of down the road error and you didn't even know you did that. So basically that's the way that we went about it. Just sort of taking a look at the data, watching how the system was being used by the citizens, how the system was being used internally, figuring out what improvements or tweaks might be needed to make that better. And then engaging with the vendor in a way that sort of says, Hey, as your beta tester, we think that this would make the product overall much better.
Well, I know this role of product manager isn't very common in local government, but something your team in Richmond specifically, you Pete, are a strong advocate for. Can you share a bit more about why this is and the value you see in this role?
Yeah. Um, this is really, uh, my first public sector position. I was in the private sector for about 20 years where product managers, a very common role, managing all aspects of a technology platform. And coming in the public sector, what struck me is we have very long public sector procurement processes for acquiring new technology, often very expensive technology. And then we kind of hand it off to the vendor to take care of everything and we don't have that knowledgeable skillset within the public sector to work with the vendor to maximize the utilization of the technology. So often what you see is underutilized technology capabilities that aren't being implemented that we've already paid for. And we found that with our platform, even though we had a great vendor, they don't know what we need, and you really need somebody like a product manager who is immersed in the day-to-day needs of the citizens and the city to be able to identify what those needs are, create the use cases, work with a vendor to, uh, make sure that we're fully utilizing the capabilities that we have. So it's something that I've been advocating throughout our city government on other platforms as well.
So the role of the product manager, I think a lot of our listeners would go, well, I don't have the budget to have, have this type of a position within my team. What would your rebuttal be to those folks?
I really think that's a hollow argument because while it's true, uh, that these roles can be more expensive than your typical administrative position, when you consider how much is being spent on the technology itself to not utilize it fully is just an egregious waste of resources. We get far greater bang for the buck, from having somebody skilled, talented, and knowledgeable and an advocate for your municipality than you will ever get from the technology itself. It's, uh, I think it's a critical role,
Right? And I couldn't agree more this idea that you get new technology and that's going to solve all your problems. I think that we can all agree and local governments have probably learned this one the hard way that you really need the people in these positions to really take full advantage of the technology and put it to work for real results across your city or county. Tina, what are some of the things you focused on when trying to make the most of this 311 citizen service tool?
Um, well I think primarily one of the things we focused on was how do we make this more citizen centric? It is, uh, supposed to be a tool that is for the citizens to help them have better access to government services. Um, and what we found was that the way that the tool had been laid out was very government-centric. The folks who would put it in place had to do so in really quick order. So it was just department driven. So what we looked at was if we basically put our citizen hats on, right? So if I'm just a citizen, I don't understand within city government always who does what function, you know, who does my storm drains versus who picks up my trash versus, you know, who chose the abandoned vehicles off the street. Um, so we just sort of put our citizen hats on and started looking at that and sort of go, okay, Where would I go as a citizen if I were looking for these services? And that was one of the first things that we tackled was trying to get the categorizations correct. Right. So that we, when you come to the site, you sort of were like, okay, I need this thing collected or cleaned up.
I need this, uh, vehicle thing addressed. I need this tree, or this vegetation issue fixed for me and for the citizen, they don't care who does it. They just care that they get their request answered. So that was one of the first things is to improve those categorizations, uh, sort of try to put things in a more citizen centric language. A citizen might not realize that the way we refer to a trash can in the city department is called a supercan, what's a supercan? Um, so we would change the terminologies for that sort of stuff. Um, same with like your storm drains and so forth. They call them basins. And so all the requests about that were titled with know, clean this basin, and I'm like, what basin? What's the basin? So we'd sort of tackled some of those things.
I kind of just used some of my friends and my relatives as little litmus tests to sort of go, what would you call this? And what would you go look up? And once we did that, we changed the requests. We changed the categorizations, and then we did a lot on the key indexing fields to sort of make sure when you put in a certain search term, which is what you would think of as citizen for how you would find it, that that would be the types of requests that come up for you. So those were a couple of the big things that we sort of tackled really early on, and they were readily available to us within this powerful tool, because it's so configurable that those were things that we could control and fix without having to engage the vendor. It's just stuff that the technology had that nobody had realized you could do so much with and no one had taken the time to dive in and leverage it.
Yeah, I think it's really important when going through and assessing different vendor options out there the admin utilities that you have. It's always a challenge when you have to go back to the company and to try to make some harder, you know, code based changes. And when you have the flexibility, um, to make changes on the fly, that can be a real game changer. Um, I love what you're saying, you know, simplifying the language. You have a lot of, I guess I'll call it industry terminology in local government that may not resonate with the public. So really thinking about that critically and just makes perfect sense and really something any local government can do if they're critically engaged and really focus on making the user experience the first priority. Did you receive any pushback from various departments internally with all these changes being made?
I think it was a learning process for everybody. Certainly we did get some pushback really around, uh, gee, I have to use a new system. Uh, I'm already working in one system. How do I, how do I deal with a second one or a third or a fourth? Um, I've got a whole new level of transparency that is provided to, uh, senior leadership and the public about the work that I'm doing. And I'm not used to that. And quite honestly, uh, what we find is most folks are very, very dedicated and that dedication has translated into wanting to get stuff done. I think there's a broader definition of wanting to get stuff done that we need to inculcate into municipal government in the sense of getting stuff done also means communicating, also means being responsive in ways that are meaningful to citizens. It's not just a number of things you can check off a list and that takes some getting used to.
Yeah, I think that that's true too. And I think, uh, uh, an interesting, um, bonus from the work that we started doing, especially internally as we began building those bridges was really to Pete's point getting more communication, but also more clarification about who is responsible within the city departments for X, Y, or Z service. And sometimes there was a lot of overlap there and some confusion. And I think that our efforts in sort of saying, Hey, we want to streamline this. We want to make it better for you. We want to make it better for the citizens. Um, so let's talk about this and getting that open dialogue going really sort of highlighted some places where even internally we would be able to sort of communicate better and make some improvements on an efficiency level there.
It's been really interesting because I hear the trouble with internal buy-in, um, from a lot of folks. Um, so many of these innovative measures, we see some resistance internally, you know, change is difficult, streamlining the citizen experience, you know, leveraging more digital tools, more accessible tools, better messaging, the language like we talked about actually makes the work in each department so much easier, which you all have seen firsthand now. What's been your communication strategy with each of the departments specifically throughout Richmond regarding this important work and the impact to each of them individually?
I think one of the things that we tried to focus on was, uh, even though I, I mean, the title of our department right, is citizens services, but we're also working for the city as well. Right. So we tried to take a what's in it for them approach. So we took that and we tried to utilize that and sort of say, Hey guys, if we can make this more efficient, if we can take the request and make it easier, for instance, and to find the right one so that when they submit it, it goes into the right bucket. And we're not trying to figure out, ut-oh, they put it in the wrong place. How do we get it somewhere else? Um, it's going to make your lives better, right? More things that belong to you will end up with you and the things you don't belong to, you end up with the department that they belong with. You will get fewer requests that you have to try to transfer. You will get fewer people who need to try to follow up on requests either because it was not yours in the first place. And so, you know, you can reduce that number, that churn that happens when citizens don't know what's going on by improving the language. Uh, we did a lot of work to improve the language. When a citizen first choose a request, this was, is, here's what this request is for. Here's where it goes. Here's what to expect after you submit it. And sometimes that expectation is where we say Hey, you're going to have to be patient, this could take six months for it to get done, just managing that expectation and letting those departments know, Hey, we're advocating for you as well. We're trying to let citizens know that you guys are working really hard, but this is something, you know, going out and cutting down a tree is something that takes a lot of moving parts and it might take awhile. It's not going to happen tomorrow. Right. So what's in it for them, I think, really worked for us to sort of see. And then once we made some changes and they saw the results of those changes, but that was really true, what we were saying that they allowed us to try to make those kinds of improvements and enhancements. It really did sort of cut that churn down. It really did sort of reduce a little bit of that angst on the citizen's part. So results started winning them over as well.
Yeah. And I would just add two points to that. Um, one is coming back to the product manager role. There was this belief, uh, it was pretty widespread that once you get a product and the vendor sets it up, it's done. So as I brought Tina on, and we started looking at the data and looking at the requests, we actually went to some departments and said, you know, this request is wrong. And like, Oh yeah, we've known it all along. I'm like, well, why didn't you say anything? Well, it is what it is. Once you get it, you can't change it. And we said, actually, we can fix this. How would you like it to be? And they were gobsmacked that another department came to them and offered improvement and offered help, uh, and that one a lot of trust, uh, for us.
And, uh, at the same time we could say, and we can make this better for the citizen and that's going to reflect better on you as well. So there was a lot of, uh, I think positive reaction to that, uh, and having somebody knowledgeable, both about city functions and about the technology to make it better for them. And the other thing that we're able to do is say, you know, what? You have unbelievably high demand for this service. Like you're right, we're permanently understaffed here. Well, we can now use this data in the budget process indicate where we may need to make adjustments to resource levels so that we can, uh, deliver better services to our citizens, again, another big win for our departments
And something else that you mentioned in the last time we spoke, which I think is really important is the communication strategy around meeting with departments individually can really be beneficial. Like you said, last time Pete you get a few advocates that can then start helping convert the rest of these departments and to real fans as well because they see the tangible results in their smaller area. And this is, you know, a management principle that goes far beyond, um, you know, all of us, like we discussed last time are coming from the private sector and this concept of it's going to be harder to do a company-wide presentation about here's the way of the world. This is the direction we're going. Um, and a aot easier if you can rally a few small teams and have them help you with the communication to the field.
Yeah, that's exactly right. We have a few, uh, very large, uh, departments with very broad portfolios, uh, that had multiple teams. So being able to go to the first team and say, we can make this a lot better for you, and a lot easier then, um, uh, gave us a great foundation for going to other teams and they go, Oh, we want some of what they got. Uh, so it really opened the doors for us. Thanks to Tina really going in and asking, you know, basically the five why's all the time. Why are we doing it that way? Okay. Why is that so? Why is that the case? And getting them to really drill down and go, okay, now I understand how somebody is seeing this from the outside and building something that worked so that citizens were submitting better requests so our internal folks are getting better information, and then other teams going, that looks great. How do I get that, too?
And as a free beta tester of this, uh, 311 service, there wasn't anything you could ask for specifically to customize it for the city of Richmond, the technology itself, but you did get some really good changes made that benefited your team, and then also the product overall. Can you walk me through your strategy and what are some of the things that they were able to deploy based off your feedback?
Oh, gosh. Yeah. So there was a lot of times spent under the hood of this application. The first thing I had to do really was sort of figure out what would it do for me that I could control. And in when I would get to a space where it wouldn't allow me to do that, then I would sort of document it really well.
And that's the advantage of having somebody dedicated to the role, right? Cause that's what my job was. So I could say, Hey, when I go in to try to do these things, um, if I click to delete this, it does not prompt me to ask me if I'm certain right. And it is, uh, it is, uh, a prior user group. It has now thousands of records attached to it. If I delete that, that the data integrity will be completely corrupted, nothing's going to flow properly. You should ask the administrator if they're sure that they want to do that. And they were like, Oh, that's a great point. And they instituted that almost immediately. Another one that we did, um, which we were able to sort of say, Hey, this is a very citizen friendly, citizen forward thing to do was, um, access to customize email templates that get sent automatically when requests are created and requests are closed.
And so we got a, uh, uh, an administrative portal piece that sort of allows us to customize the language in those email templates that are sent out to the citizens so that we are reinforcing the messaging that we do with the information that we'll text by sort of saying, when we send them an email source, say, by the way, if it takes six months, don't forget, this can take six months, uh, and giving them that.
They seem like little things, but they really made a huge impact for us. Uh, other things that we were able to do were in and around some of the, um, reporting and, uh, getting them to connect with like anybody who uses this tool is going to need effective reports so that they can analyze the data that is coming out of it. So we were able to even under the guise of the gift contract, get them to stand up a reporting database that we pull using Microsoft power BI pull reports from. We could actually get a look at that and that didn't exist before we started just putting our, what does this mean hat on? And they're all improvements that were beneficial to us, as well as anyone else who might've been using Avepoint.
I love this concept of the free beta testing with governments. Uh, you know, people on the ground doing the work it's going to result in such a stronger product than, um, than a bunch of technology nerds, building something that they think is going to help local government in a lot of cases. So, um, so I think that's fantastic that you're able to be involved with the product development there. You're no longer a beta tester with them. How has your relationship with this vendor evolved since you took over the project?
This same vendor, we did a massive RFP last year and we went out and, uh, focus elicited this. And, um, interestingly enough, the same vendor actually still won that contract. And the primary reason that they won the contract was the extensive configuration capabilities that they offer. So that you're not in that situation of the vendors implemented it. Now, if you want something different or something needs to change, you submit your request to this vendor and now you're their hostage. They might do it when they get around to it or they might not. Um, so that was a big change for us to move into that territory of being a paying customer now with the same vendor, because we'd already built a really great collaborative relationship, you know, trying to figure out how could we work within the gift contract and get some changes.
Now, what we were able to do is say, okay, these were all the big things that we felt like we couldn't really ask you for because it was a gift. And, uh, all of that stuff, all of the things that we thought the tool would be improved, we weren't sure if it would work the same because every city, government, every municipality, it works differently. Right? So what works for us maybe doesn't work for another. So we were hesitant to ask for it, it felt like it might be too city of Richmond centric. Um, but all of that stuff went into the RFP. All those things went in as requirements. And what we were able to do is leverage an ongoing relationship that allows us to be really engaged with them on the way. So it's almost like we're continuing to be a beta tester, but we have a greater voice and there's no restrictions on what we can ask for in terms of improvements.
Great. And while you're gearing up for a really exciting launch of a totally re-imagined citizen requests platform in Richmond. What's the timing looking like for that launch?
We're currently targeting a Q1 launch of that. We wanted to make sure we give ourselves ample time to manage the changes internally. Um, also wanted to do a marketing campaign so that we can inform a citizens about the changes that are coming. That's always a little bit of a challenge because we don't have always direct access to your citizenry to sort of say, Hey, by the way, this doesn't work this way anymore. It works that way. So we built in some additional time for ourselves to do training, to do marketing, to do some PR with the citizens. And so we're just kind of leaving it a little loose.
Fantastic. Well, we're excited to add, to fill up then with another follow on episode, you know, the finished product and the strategies you all used for marketing and communication across the city, as you mentioned, those can be, it can be challenging to reach all of your constituents. Now I want our listeners to be able to take away some tangible advice and advice that would resonate with any size local government. What would you say is the first step in product management and where did you begin two years ago with this initiative?
Well I think the product management part of ownership, you know, it's a, it's a stop look and listen kind of, uh, engagement, right? So the first thing to do is nothing. Just learn. What does the product do, what is it intended to do? How's it being used? Is it being used as it was intended to be used? And then look at the data that's being collected, be the tool, look at the way that the users are using the tool. Is that being effective? Are there spaces for improvement and then start engaging with those particular users that you've identified, who are your power users and listen to what it is they have to say about how it is or isn't working. And then when you're dealing with citizens, we did a couple of different approaches. We listened to what the data was telling us about how citizens are using it.
We sort of tried to figure out what improvements we could make based on what the data was telling us. But we also took our little dog and pony show on the road, and we was going to walk to a lot of, uh, of the district meetings within the communities. And we put ourselves out there and we listened directly to the citizens telling us, you know, how they were using it. Then all of that stuff, you bring it back. And as a product owner, you know, your goal is to sort of make the product do and be as efficient as it possibly can to meet the needs of its users and product management of this nature, you have multiple different user classes, internal users, and then there are your citizen users. And you've got to try to find that balance to start trying to make that product work for both sets of users. That way you build the best, uh, bridges of cooperation.
Looking back, what's something, you know now that you wish you knew from the start of the project, something that you'd improve upon, if you could do it all over again?
Boy, for me, I think the thing I would improve is my own patience. Um, I came also from the private sector. This was my first foray into working in a large government agency. And I think I've probably came in with less patience than I needed for how long it takes to build those bridges and get that consensus and bring all the parties together and start making the changes that need to happen. I was just used to being able to say, I know this needs to be done. I'm doing it right now. Everybody's standby. Right? It'd be like snap. I would just go for it. And that doesn't really work that way when you're in an agency like this, you gotta, you gotta sort of reach out a little harder and a little further get things done.
Now this question is for each of you, what's a piece of advice or an important theme you'd like to share with the wider community of local governments globally?
I think one of the themes for me is, is around buy-in right. I think that a lot of this wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had some top-down affective leadership. Pete has been a real advocate for not only the citizens, but also for taking this product and trying to get the most out of it, um, that we should and advocating for this role, advocating for reexamining how it was working and what it was doing. And, um, having that support from that top level is I think critical, or I have found it to be critical within a government agency. In an organization or city entity that is really, really important for that top-down support. Um, so that you have people to go to the mat for you, if he's coming up, some of those, some of the changes that you'd want to do or you see that are needed can be hard. And, um, and you you're going to have to have that leadership.
Yeah, I would just add to that, uh, you know, building on what Tina was saying, it's a continual education process amongst senior leadership who have many, many different priorities and competing stakeholders that they have to focus on every day and you can't expect them to immediately know everything about your little world. Uh, and this is just as true in the private sector, but, um, you really need to educate over a course of time and build that understanding and be able to explain what is going to happen next. We now have the level of data and information to know how people submit requests, what type of request they submit by channel when we were going to expect high volumes and what type of that's going to be a pandemic aside that threw a wrench into things.
But, um, that, that was really crucial as being able to tell people what to anticipate and, and give them the tools to understand it in a context that's meaningful for them and for you and for your objectives.
The other thing that gets me up every morning is really the concept of democratizing access to services and access to government. These are things as simple as requesting or for a tree to be trimmed or for a new trash can, but these are things that historically people have really struggled with. I date myself a little bit by talking about the blue pages and the, uh, old phone directory, which was a whole section of government services that was many pages of fine print of who to call for, what if you knew what to look for. Sso moving away from that model of almost total self service, if somebody answered the phone, to just call 311 and we will get you to the right place is something that really excites me because it's hugely empowering to citizens who have been struggling to access services for a long time. And so we're really excited to improve that access and, and just make it make government much friendlier and easier for people to utilize.
Right. Yeah. Accessibility is key and trying to be as digital as possible with all these requests. And you mentioned, you know, there's a lot of power in the data that you now have that was really hard before when it was more paper-based, submit a request and it goes into some black box somewhere, at least that's what it seems to a citizen, um, a lot of times. What's something that excites you about the future of Richmond?
Pete, I’m going to let you go first on that one.
We have a great city with a great river running through it, and, uh, I think there's, uh, a lot going on here that's going to be really exciting in the future, obviously in our space, we're excited. I think some of the things that are being done more broadly in addressing equity, homelessness, and enabling people to get a leg up are really exciting. And, um, I think bode well for a much more balanced development in the city of Richmond,
I'm actually also very excited, just the track record that we have currently with the additional collaboration and communication that we're starting to build and starting to see amongst all of our products and projects and departments. And I'm actually excited for us to be working together internally, recognizing we are all here to sort of service the citizens of the city, right.
It's not just our department that's trying to do that. And let's all, you know, not to get kumbaya or anything, but let's hold hands and let's do this together. Let's make it a better experience internally, externally for the whole thing.
Well, I think you guys have done an excellent job, really making the case for a product owner or product manager in local government. I liked really digging into the issues around lack of vendor management in government. What you've done, Tina and your team, really looking into this specific tool and making the most of it. We're excited for the launch coming up and we'll be able to see it in action. So I want to encourage you all to keep up the great work in Richmond on this project and beyond. And thanks again for coming on to share your innovative work.
Thanks Lindsay, great talking to you.
Thanks Lindsay, appreciate you having us.
The Richmond team shares some insights around the importance of vendor management and ongoing engagement with a product’s various tools. Technology is moving quickly and citizen expectations are evolving just as fast. The concept of set it and forget it in vendor management can no longer fly. So we encourage you to look into establishing a product owner role within your government if you don’t have it already.
Pete and Tina also remind us of the importance of looking closely at the experience from the citizen’s perspective - what language may confuse them? What can we automate on our end to streamline this for all user types?
For more tips on making the shift to more human-centered design or to view projects submitted by other local governments on this topic, come to Govlaunch.com.
I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano and this podcast was produced by Govlaunch the Wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at govlaunch.com. Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.