Enabling Agile and Collaborative Municipal Operations During a Pandemic

Picture this: you are a local government employee and it’s late March. A big snowstorm is coming, the coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the country, and the national economy is in a downslide. Everyone is being asked to stay home and, as a result, almost every organization is shifting to an almost entirely remote workforce – something that has never been done before. Everything is chaotic but you must keep city services running and have the streets plowed, while also keeping your employees safe.

This is the scenario that Auburn, a small town in south central Maine with a population just north of 23,000, and its City Manager Phillip Crowell and GIS Manager Rosemary Mosher found themselves in earlier this year as COVID brought the world to a grinding halt.

Prior to the pandemic, Crowell (then Assistant City Manager) was working hand in hand with Mosher to build a strong data- and GIS- driven culture in the city’s operations. With prior experience using GIS for decision making, Crowell understood the value that data and technology could bring to the city as the pandemic disrupted operations. On this snowy day in late March, the city shifted to remote work for those that could, and enabled flex time for those who could not (e.g., public works). Managing a municipal staff of about 250 employees with this new way of working was set to pose an enormous challenge. In the face of uncertainty, Crowell turned to Mosher for help as the snowstorm started to barrel down.

First off, Crowell needed a single, high-level, operational view of staff availability across departments, which Mosher was quickly able to develop. Every day, the leaders of each department use a reporting tool that allows them to not only indicate that a certain number of employees are out, but also the reason for their absence (e.g., personal illness, caring for a sick loved one, childcare). Understanding the reason for each absence helps flag any potential coronavirus exposure and helps the city anticipate near-term staffing challenges if an employee is expected to be absent for a prolonged period. The tool also allows users to see where an employee is working, whether remotely, in the office, or out in the field, to help determine who can best respond to an emerging situation.

With this dashboard, the City Manager’s office can see real-time staffing needs to shift staff around to various departments as resource limitations present themselves. For example, if a public works employee assigned to plow the roads during a snowstorm has to call out due to a positive COVID test, the city manager’s office can reallocate an employee focused on another public works task (such as trash pick up) to take their place behind the wheel.

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While the City Manager’s office oversees the dashboard and has the overarching authority to make staffing decisions using it, individual departments have also found it useful. Several city departments have collaborated throughout the pandemic on shifting staff and resources around proactively, without ever needing to engage the city manager. This is something Crowell has actively encouraged to limit operational bottlenecks and to give staff the freedom to utilize city resources in ways they feel is best.

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While all of this sounds easy and seamless, the initial efforts to integrate this tool into the operational flow of every city department –  in the middle of a pandemic – was not easy. To start, not every department had access to the enterprise solution the city was using at first. To get everyone connected, the city had to quickly set up a secure server-based web service and then integrate it with their existing on-site solution that allowed every department to sign in with unique log on credentials. Once everyone was online, Mosher had to work individually with departments that were new to using this platform and train them on how to fill out the reporting tool. And it was not easy to get everyone trained when priorities changed every day and resources were being pulled in every direction.

Beyond the technical challenges, Mosher and Crowell held several meetings with departments across the city to help them understand the importance of complying with new requirements to report staff availability daily. Mosher has been responsible for monitoring compliance with these requirements and has had to work directly with departments every day to ensure their information is constantly kept up to date. Despite these challenges, the dashboard has now become a part of every department’s daily activities and helps to keep the city operational to the fullest extent possible.

Mosher has successfully institutionalized the use of this dashboard and others like it during the pandemic thanks to two key factors. The first stems from the city’s recent move to bring the GIS team (meaning Mosher herself as a one-woman army) into a brand-new Communications and Community Outreach Department within the city manager’s office. The tools she builds are positioned within city operations in a way that enables her and Crowell to support city departments with their wide-ranging needs as an on-demand service. With Crowell’s full support, Mosher has been able to expose a range of city departments to tools they may have never used before. She noted, “I could be sitting here with all the vision in the world, but if I don’t have somebody at the top who’s willing to allow me to do the things that I envision, none of this is possible.” She credited Crowell with being her biggest supporter.

Prior to the pandemic, they demonstrated the value these types of tools bring to the table and made more city staff open to the use of this technology. Which brings us to the second key to success: what Mosher called her “early adopters.” These early adopters were the department heads who not only benefited from GIS in the past, but also understood what the City Manager’s office was looking to accomplish and acted as ambassadors to help bring other departments on board once the pandemic hit. A little peer pressure in this instance helped to move things along more quickly and the benefits of this dashboard are now widely understood throughout all departments. When asked how to gain such widespread support, Mosher advocated for a sympathetic approach, working to better understand the challenges and needs of different departments, and building tools that enable them to address those challenges in a data-informed and actionable way. She stressed that this is important for moments like this when the city needs to come together in times of crisis and work hand in hand to serve the community.

Today, Maine is fortunate to have one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infection in the country, but the dashboard still plays a critical role in managing staff and city resources. Mosher noted that city staff have not become complacent and continue to prioritize safety for employees. With the return to school conversation heating up and the risk of a second wave of COVID coming in the fall, she is having ongoing conversations and is continuing to collaborate with city leadership about how this and other dashboards can be useful for Auburn moving forward.

Through this dashboard, Crowell and Mosher have demonstrated that enabling an agile and collaborative government is possible when backed by advanced technology and real-time data, even amid a pandemic. Despite the initial time it took to embed this reporting tool into daily operations for all departments, Auburn’s municipal operations never stopped and have been able to continue serving their residents through the pandemic. Much of this is thanks to Crowell and Mosher’s data-driven leadership, and their innovative problem solving among a worldwide crisis.

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