Building City-Led Innovative Digital Services


  • Christopher Jordan
August 23, 2023 - (6 min read)

Amidst the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Walnut Creek, CA, witnessed a profound decline in the number of residents visiting City Hall in-person, registering an 80% decrease in traffic. In response to these shifting circumstances, a team was assembled with the goal of enhancing the city’s repertoire of online services accessible to its residents. Their initial work involved redesigning the Community Development Department’s web presence to improve the process of applying for permits and access information on zoning and planning entitlements. The team partnered with Department Directors, Community Development Staff and customers to collect data for improving the site. The team saw measurable improvements in tracking customers’ ability to complete transactions more quickly, increased online accessibility and ease of contacting the appropriate staff member for assistance.

In the rapidly evolving digital landscape, local governments are rising to the opportunity and reimagining traditional methods of public service delivery. Cities, towns and villages around the country are embracing the power of digital technologies, platforms and tools to enhance efficiency, improve resident engagement and pilot innovative methods of governance. These new “digital services” are a promising way to create a more inclusive and connected society, as well as deliver optimized service experiences. In this blog post, we explore the transformative potential of digital services and how local governments can navigate this exciting journey toward a more efficient and resident-centric future.

To learn more about digital services, join us at 2 p.m. (ET) Thursday, Aug. 31 for a conversation with local leaders on their experiences upgrading digital services in their communities. This will be the third and final installment of NLC’s City Innovation Summer Learning Series. Learn more and register for the webinar at City Innovation Summer Learning Series 2023.

Digital services encompass an array of products and offerings delivered through online platforms or with the aid of digital technologies. They include public-facing website design, online service requests, open data portals, data visualizations, payment systems, communication and engagement platforms and more.

Digital services are further defined by their focus on on-demand, direct-to-user experiences that prioritize efficiency, usability and value. By leveraging well-designed digital services, local leaders can create seamless interactions that streamline service delivery, enabling residents to access the services they need anytime, anywhere and with minimal friction.

Local governments are investing in digital services for several compelling reasons:

The National League of Cities has partnered with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation to provide guidance to local leaders as they look to maximize their return on digital service investments. A municipal action guide will be published in early September. Here are some insights from the upcoming action guide:

“We’ve traditionally had a compliance mindset, but we’re really trying to shift that to be a value mindset and to think about the different values that accessible design brings to a digital service.” Ashley O’Brien, User Experience Designer, St. Paul, MN

Designing Digital Services with User-Centered Principles: At the heart of successful digital services lies the principle of user-centered design. By prioritizing accessibility, intuitive interfaces and simplified processes, cities can ensure that their services cater to the diverse needs of their residents. Understanding the user perspective and identifying pain points at every stage of the service journey is essential. Incorporating feedback and conducting continuous testing enables iterative design, leading to improved user satisfaction and engagement.

“If the public can get to a service that they need 24/7, we’ve done our jobs.” Karissa Demi, Director of Software Engineering, City of Philadelphia, PA

The Power of Digital Transformation: Digital transformation is not just about adopting new technologies; it involves a cultural shift, methodological changes and strategic implementation. By embracing digital transformation, city governments can enhance their internal operations and the efficiency and experience of public services. Cloud computing and data analytics offer increased operational capacity and cybersecurity, while resident engagement platforms allow for more accessible interactions with the government. The benefits are manifold: meeting resident needs and expectations, building trust with the community, adapting to the digital norm, and optimizing limited resources.

“You need to bring in different disciplines and you need to upskill your workforce in new ways to address (digital) challenges. It doesn’t just happen without intention.” – Rebecca Woodbury, Former Director of Digital Service and Open Government, San Rafael, CA

Building Digital Capacity: Upskilling the Workforce: Upskilling the workforce is critical for a successful digital transformation journey. Local governments, especially small and medium-sized cities, face challenges in acquiring the right talent with expertise in digital technologies and service design. Creative solutions, such as partnering with educational institutions and facilitating peer-to-peer training, can bridge the digital skills gap. Additionally, modernizing job descriptions to attract candidates with the desired skill sets is crucial for creating a diverse and inclusive workforce that excels in the digital age.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital transformation, all local governments can improve the accessibility, efficiency and provision of public services through digital transformation. To learn more about pathways to digital transformation, you can:

  • Register for our upcoming webinar on Building City-Led Innovative Digital Services.
  • Join our Innovation Staff Network on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Christopher Jordan

About the Author

Christopher Jordan is a Senior Specialist on Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.