Videoconferencing helps local gov deliver citizen services
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Feb 03, 2016
Amid calls for more digital government services that let constituents find answers without human interaction, there is still something to say for, well, human interaction. Agencies are finding that tools that let them leverage technology to provide face-to-face assistance offer a new way to get the job done.
Often key are videoconferencing solutions such as Skype. Throughout state and local government, officials are using videoconferencing to carry out tasks that previously required travel, either by government workers themselves or the people they serve.
In Boston, for instance, out-of-towners who received parking tickets can appeal those to the Office of the Parking Clerk via a Skype hearing. The city added that service to its existing options -- in person or via mail, the phone or the web -- in October 2015.
“If visitors are in town for a few days and receive a parking violation, it is unlikely that they will have the time to return to Boston shortly thereafter to appeal a parking ticket,” said Stephen Maguire, assistant parking clerk for Boston, in an email.
So far, the office has conducted just 11 hearings through Skype, and is waiting on additional information from three more applicants before scheduling their hearings, according to Maguire.
Nevertheless, he said, “Skype provides these visitors with another option for appealing parking tickets, and it contributes to the city of Boston’s efforts to use current technology to provide a user-friendly experience for people who need to conduct personal business with city agencies.”
To get the program going, the city added Skype to hearing officers’ work computers and ensured that the office of the Parking Clerk’s Internet connection had the bandwidth to handle video calls. People who want to contest a ticket need a Skype account, a functioning camera on their computer or mobile device and a strong Internet connection.
“Implementing this program was not about meeting any financial goals,” Maguire said. “Rather, it was about ensuring that people visiting Boston have options for appealing a parking ticket…. We have received feedback in the past from out-of-town visitors that not having this option was an issue for them, so this initiative is in response to those comments and remedies that situation.”
On the other side of the country, a county government began using Skype in October for some building inspections. The Pima County, Ariz., Development Services Department offers a remote inspection program for clients that need building inspections done quickly or at a specific time. For example, people who need county approval for electrical reconnects or water heater replacements are good candidates for remote inspection, according to the county. Inspections that are large or require a lot of detail, however, are not.
“Our primary goal is better client service by allowing clients to schedule just-in-time inspections,” said Rich Franz-Under, green building manager at Pima County Development Services, Building and Site Development. “This improved client service also results in time savings for us by reducing field inspection trips,” he said. Inspectors spend an average of three hours per day driving, so “anything we can do to convert drive time to inspection time allows us to better serve clients and keep our expenses low.”
The Development Services Department uses an in-field auto-routing program to distribute and route the next day’s inspection to field inspectors. “Because the route is fixed, we needed to provide our clients with a just-in-time option for inspections like power-kills that are scheduled with the electric company in advance,” he said.
To offer it, the department loaded the Skype app onto its computers and purchased a USB headset with a microphone, Franz-Under explained. The department uses a web-based calendaring app for clients to schedule the inspections. To work, the inspection site must have 4G wireless service or Wi-Fi and clients must have Skype on their wireless device. Additionally, the county must have electronic copies of the plans.
So far, 56 clients have used the remote service for 112 inspections, Franz-Under said, and during one recent week, the department averaged 2.75 remote inspections per day.
“Clients who have tried it like it and become regular users,” he said. “Some clients don’t want to take the time to learn how to use Skype on their phone or how to use the scheduling app. We are considering training options to assist these clients.
The technology of choice for videoconferencing is not always Skype. In 2011, Nevada County, Calif., was experimenting with proprietary systems at 60 locations across the county. And in 2013, Travis County Jail in Texas stopped allowing inmates to have in-person visits at the Correctional Complex Visitation Center and turned instead to a video visitation system provided by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. People wishing to visit an inmate can use a computer at the visitation center or at home. A 20-minute session costs $20.
“The main reason for the switch is safety and security of the inmates and staff,” according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. With videoconferencing, inmates no longer need to be transported to the visitation center for visits and can instead visit from their units using the video visitation terminals.
Texas’ Bastrop County Jail also implemented a similar system last fall, and Dallas County allows video visits, although it still has in-person visitation, too.
Across the public and private sectors, analysts are seeing an uptick in the use of and demand for videoconferencing. For example, Global Industry Analysts said last March that worldwide, the market for such services would reach $2.9 billion by 2020. The United States is the largest videoconferencing market in the world, in part because of adoption by the government.
In recent years, market research firm IDC said that the top drivers for videoconferencing use in the public sector were reduced travel expenses and other cost savings, increased productivity, better employee collaboration and improved business processes. Rich Costello, a senior research analyst within IDC’s Enterprise Communications Infrastructure service, went further, adding that deploying video as a hosted or cloud resource gives agencies additional options.
“This enables organizations to deploy video with limited IT resources, providing workers with access to video collaboration sessions, regardless of location, for a monthly fee per desktop user or endpoint,” Costello said in a 2013 report titled “Video Collaboration Trends in the Public Sector.” “Video cloud offerings can significantly change the economics of videoconferencing for the public sector.”
In 2014, an IDC survey found that about half of government and education sector respondents said their agencies use on-premises server-based video or VaaS offerings such as Cisco Systems’ WebEx, for example. About 30 percent said they use subscription-based services such as Skype.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.