Through the digitization of about 1.3 million files dating back to the 1600s, city leaders in Salem, MA learned that one issue has remained top-of-mind for residents throughout the centuries: parking.
In the early 1800s, local residents would complain about a lack of space for tying up horses or wagons. By the 1920s, residents complained about not having enough places to park their Model T's. And in 2020, people were still complaining about traffic and parking, Salem CIO Matt Killen said.
Salem leaders are at the midway point of an approximately six-year digitization process for the city's centuries-old documents, and will have cost the city about $690,000 by the end of its next fiscal year in June 2021.
Such digitization efforts have taken on a heightened sense of urgency in local government due to the pandemic and a shift to largely remote operations, and Salem leaders have said the benefits of digitizing are well-worth the cost — even during a year when most city budgets are strapped.
Salem's digitization process began in 2017 as city officials prepared to move a number of departments — human resources, engineering, health, planning and others — to a new building. The "stars aligned," according to Killen, because it didn't make sense to move countless boxes, papers and other physical files.
Killen pitched Mayor Kim Driscoll on implementing a document management solution for improved efficiencies and public transparency, and Driscoll was immediately on board, he said.
Capital dollars were appropriated in fiscal year 2018 to kick off the projected $1 million project, which uses content management platform Laserfiche, and encompasses the costs of hardware, software, training, scanning, licenses and other areas, according to Killen. The project has since been supported by ongoing capital appropriations and a $150,000 technology innovation grant, he said.
By March 2020, the project also provided some unexpected benefits to the city as it shifted many operations online due to the pandemic. There were already over 1 million digital documents available online around that time — with most of the original documents destroyed after being digitized — which allowed residents and professionals who needed various public records to safely access those files via their own computers, according to Rob Banks, a business system analyst with the City of Salem.
The expectation among city residents to easily access files such as real estate records or permitting processes online has also risen in part due to the pandemic.
Sixty-one percent of government officials believe the pandemic has accelerated the digitization of services, according to a recent Granicus survey. Citizens are also taking note of the shift: 52% of citizens said they've noticed local governments now offer more online services, and 54% of citizens said they expect government services to be offered online, with 30% expecting those processes to be simpler.
Digitization is not without its challenges, though.
It’s uncommon for cities to have their files digitized to the extent that Salem has done, according to Killen. The main challenges for cities can be effectively communicating the benefits and securing the funds, he said.
In fact, an April CityGrows report analyzed how 822 U.S. communities have digitized six key services, including 311/constituent service requests, boards and commission applications and business licensing. The group found that only eight mid-sized governments, or just 4% offer online access to all six areas: Alexandria, VA; Arvada, CO; Cambridge, MA; Castle Rock, CO; Centennial, CO; Everett, WA; Oak Park, IL; and Provo, UT.
"There's a lot of competing pressure in municipal budgets from potholes to police vehicles," Killen said. "A lot of people recognize the benefit but securing the funds is difficult. [It] takes administrative and elected official support recognizing that this is valuable... and that can be difficult when you’re facing very tough competing pressures."
Salem leaders also had to keep a watchful eye for some older records like permits and planning documents that included social security numbers, which had to be identified and scrubbed, according to Killen.
But despite the challenges, digitization is worth the time and costs, Killen said. The benefits include a reduced burden on staff, as employees no longer need to respond to as many public record or contract copy requests, he said.
Departments also get the added benefit of being able to share documents between each other, reducing silos and enabling more informed decisions, according to Banks.
"It makes you more nimble and more efficient as an organization internally, more responsive to your community externally and it reduces the burden on staff," Killen said.