A Texas-size test of digital government
- By Suzette Lohmeyer
- Oct 13, 2015
Bexar County, Texas, CIO Catherine Maras has brought her rapidly growing community online with an innovative, multi-pronged strategy to improve government transparency and streamline citizen services – and all on a very tight budget.
“Creativity is piqued when you have to do more with less,” Maras said. Without adequate funds for “brick and mortar” government substations, and with large areas of rural countryside making it difficult to decide where one should even go, going digital made the most logistical and financial sense.
Combine that with Bexar’s rapidly growing population, including a number of military personnel who need access to government services from faraway postings, and the move to online government services was a no-brainer. Maras joked that their unofficial slogan is, “I don’t want all those people in my building,” and the official county slogan pushes the same message: “Don’t wait in line. Go online.”
To make going online practical, Maras used her background as a corporate IT executive to mold commercial software to fit county government needs. “We have to look at things horizontally," she said. "We integrate commercial software into county government or if we don’t have it, we build it.”
A faster, more transparent court system
Bexar’s use of video and online access across the court system -- including arrest records, jury duty registration, court proceedings and jail video visitation -- has saved staffing and other costs, as well as made the process more accessible and transparent.
The eDiscovery program, for example, Maras said, saves the “hours and hours of work” it used to take to process the reports and videos from a DUI charge into CDs and DVDs for attorneys. With eDiscovery, everything is completely automated and accessible through a portal, where attorneys can access and review evidence quickly and easily.
“That also means that a person can go to court faster, which decreases our jail population,” Maras explained. “We didn’t want to build a new jail. We wanted to build a new process to get people to court faster. ... It costs $80 a day to house an inmate, and if you are 500 inmates down a day that saves substantive money annually. It works.”
The county also plans to implement video visitation blocks in the jail next year -- a growing trend to use videoconferencing instead of face-to-face visits between visitors and inmates. Maras said the move not only cuts down on the staffing and logistics it takes to get someone through prison security, but will likely allow for more frequent “visits,” which studies suggest can reduce recidivism.
The Commissioners Court Video Streaming Service, implemented last year, is another initiative that Maras said has been a success. The service allows for the live streaming of court session video through TVs, computers, smartphones and other mobile devices. And the videos, available online for three years, eliminate response time and staffing requirements for public record requests.
E-services, e-tatistics, e-library
Bexar County citizens can access department forms and records from anywhere via their smart device and BexarCountyAR, an augmented reality application. “It allows users to point their smart device camera at designated images representative of a service or department to access related useful information,” explained Maras.
Maras said the county also offers immediate demographic information for businesses, potential homebuyers, and anyone else who wants to know about a specific zip code through My Bexar Community Dashboard –- an idea that came to her when she moved to the area and was looking for information on who local officials were and where to vote. “If you click on an area of the map," she explained, "it brings up school districts, election administrators, ZIP code, where to pay your taxes. And now we’re going to add animal control.”
BibloTech is the county’s all-digital library system for rural and low-income areas, as well as hospitals and jury rooms. The libraries require an initial physical visit with proof of residency, but then users have access to more than 30,000 ebooks via their own smart device or one of the library e-readers that they can borrow. “We put it where military folks convalesce," Maras said. "We put it in another part of town associated with low-income housing. We call it our little McDonalds.”
Bexar County websites average 310,000 visitors per month, an increase of web traffic between 15–20 percent since the first online services were available, according to county officials.
Suzette Lohmeyer is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.