For the sixth year in a row, Arlington County has been named the No. 1 Digital County for 2023 for counties of comparable size.
The accolade highlights Arlington’s progress toward moving its operations onto the cloud — which Arlington County Chief Information Officer Norron Lee says makes county processes safer, greener and easier — as well as its broadband access study and the priority placed on customers.
These achievements exist alongside the reality that many residents have reported not-so-seamless experiences interacting with certain county processes online. Perhaps this happens once a year when the sign their kids up for camp or apply for a residential parking permit or more frequently, for instance when builders interact with Permit Arlington.
System crashes, delayed launches and slow service have made local news headlines over the past few years. While not headline grabbing, other issues linger: having separate logins for various county systems, minimal online-based support, and — in at least one recent case, for a specific business tax — a requirement to receive mail or make phone calls in order to register for a new “paperless” system.
One issue, according to multiple interviews conducted by ARLnow over the past month, is a highly siloed approach to technology at the county level, with departments making their own tech decisions despite limited expertise.
“I think we started to deviate from best practice when, in other parts of the world, technology was more of a component of every other department’s daily life, not a separate entity unto itself,” says Aneesh Chopra, a longtime resident, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama to be the first Chief Technology Officer of the U.S.
Arlington may have world-class broadband but, he says, “when it comes to these applications that are effectively run by different departments, it feels like they stopped innovating since the 1990s.”
Arlington County Board members and the County Manager’s Office say they are aware of the frustrations their constituents face and envision a day when technology does a better job of streamlining bureaucratic processes, freeing up staff for complex issues, and houses all government interactions in one place.
“We are in a good place, in my opinion, but I do think — instead of trying to adopt a relatively bureaucratic system with a digital face or front — we have to think about how those processes can be streamlined,” County Board member Takis Karantonis said, when talking about Permit Arlington. “This is a work in progress, still.”
He and County Board Chair Christian Dorsey say Arlington needs a one-stop shop for people to take care of all the ways they interact with government.
“There ought to be some… seamless way to [respond to bureaucratic needs] in a central web portal that’s also optimized for mobile use as well, where people can do this with a minimum of user names passwords to recall,” said Dorsey.
Dorsey alluded to “an articulation of way forward” before he leaves the Board this December.
“We can easily articulate what we need to be doing but getting there needs resources the Board has felt uneasy committing while we’ve had other pressing priorities,” such as the response to Covid, he said.
The county does not have someone whose sole responsibility is inter-departmental technology integration. The effort instead falls to the County Manager’s Office and the Dept. of Technology Services, which is guiding a cooperative effort across 26 county departments that have staff with varying technological literacy.
For Deputy County Manager Aaron Miller, the county’s “federated” structure has its pluses, like staff who are more responsive when there are problems, but there are downsides.
“When we do have to have centralized discussions it takes a lot of time to get everyone on the same page,” he said. “It’s a lot of time to pull everyone together… What we want to do is make sure that we are implementing systems that get the best experience but, sometimes, that comes with trade offs. When you look to centralize those systems, you essentially can water down functionality that might be important.”
Striking that balance and reaching this goal is fraught technological and legal hurdles, Miller says, but the county is motivated by hiccups people experienced getting permits and signing up for camp.
Already, the Dept. of Technological Services has stepped up its vetting of technology vendors for other departments. Miller says vendors often come “promising us that they can solve all of our problems,” but it can be difficult for someone without a technical background to evaluate a vendor’s ability to actually deliver on their promises.
Meanwhile, one constitutional office is leading the charge for a more unified payment system that could solve many problems in a different area of civic life: taxes and fees.
County treasurer Carla de la Pava says the pandemic both derailed an ongoing tax system upgrade and highlighted the need for the universal payment portal her staff is building with J.P. Morgan Chase and financial services corporation Paymentus.
“After the pandemic, I saw a number of emails where people were incredibly frustrated because they didn’t know how to make a payment for something that they owed one of the agencies,” she said. “That’s when we realized that it was it was no longer of luxury, it was a necessity.”
One day, Arlingtonians could experience paying for county taxes and fees like an online shopping cart. Even if they start their “journey” registering their car, when they hit “pay,” they are taken to an portal where they can opt to pay a business license tax or for school lunches.
(The county already has a system like that — the Customer Assessment and Payment Portal, or CAPP — but it’s based on older technology and only covers payments for certain taxes and fees.)
As the new platform gets built, more functions are added. One of the first was Freedom of Information Act fees.
“We are behind schedule but we are working with a vendor but part of the problem is that no one has done this before,” de la Pava said.
While that work continues, departments administering existing platforms that have had issues say they are seeing improvements.
All building permits moved online by this February, and as of March, resolution times for technical support are almost where they were before last June, Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development spokeswoman Elise Cleva says.
Last June, building, trade, and land disturbing permits moved online, causing serious delays and customer service issues. Although customer service may have improved, ARLnow is still hearing of frustrations with the time permitting generally takes, which Permit Arlington was launched in part to resolve.
For years, the Dept. of Parks and Recreation had serious technical difficulties during high-volume registration events, spokesman Adam Segel-Moss said. Platform vendor Vermont Systems did not recommend adding a “waiting room” function to handle that traffic until 2022, when Arlington and other municipalities saw record levels of registration activity.
Arlington and Vermont Systems added the function for registration this year. DPR also adopted Vermont System’s 2021 user interface upgrade this year, a delay Segel-Moss attributed to not having the resources and time to undertake earlier.
DPR staggered registration, added 1,000 camp slots and increased the number of day-of-registration support staff to 40, he noted. Together, those changes helped to make the process much smoother, without the crashes of previous years.
When the contract with Vermont Systems ends in 2026, the county’s Dept. of Technology Services will weigh in on the selection of a vendor. For its part, Vermont Systems says it has made many upgrades in the last two years, in part motivated by the issues seen in Arlington.
“We see the pain our communities go through and we want to be a good partner as a software vendor,” VP of Product Management Bryan Gillilan, who works directly with Arlington County, told ARLnow.
The quality of every digital platform is only a piece of the puzzle, however.
Chopra says county policies, culture and leadership need to be oriented to realizing an “Arlingtonian-centered approach and design” to all technology.
“There should be an ‘Arlington Way‘ for digital services development that is as storied as the ‘Arlington Way’ for policy development,” he said. “They should be treated with equal value and weight.”
Indeed, Jennifer Pahlka — former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and an expert in how state and federal technologies can spectacularly fail — says in her new book “Recoding America” that governments succeed when they focus on customers, not the newest tech.
From the book:
Although a government must adapt to an increasingly digital world, the heart of the adaptation isn’t mobile apps, cloud computing, or even artificial intelligence. It is a willingness to put the needs of government’s many users ahead of the needs of the bureaucracy, and to learn while doing. The good news is that software and our government have something very important in common: they are made by and for people. In the end, we get to decide how they work.
For the county’s leaders, that starts with customer service.
“During the debacle with DPR, people very much got human beings who were able to respond to people and walked them through it,” Dorsey said. “We hear of certain examples from each and every department where people feel like employees went above and beyond what their expectations were to navigate something.”
Lee, the Arlington County CIO, said in an interview with Government Technology about Arlington’s top technology marks that he is confident the culture within his team will get the county to achieve great things.
“A shared willingness to tackle tough problems helps us build toward a better future by everyone putting one foot in front of another until we have surprised ourselves with the distance we have traveled together,” he said.
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Children’s Weekday Program (CWP) is a non-profit preschool rooted in a play-based philosophy. We focus on developing a love of learning and exploration, cooperation, empathy, and independence.
Our caring and experienced educators create opportunities for children 16 months to 5 years old to play, learn, and grow in a nurturing environment of child-centered and developmentally appropriate experiences.
Initially established more than 50 years ago in South Arlington, CWP continues to be a lauded program in the Northern Virginia area. We are extremely proud to have been recognized as a Best Preschool in Northern Virginia Magazine for the last 4 years.
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The Optimist Club of Arlington is holding its 77th annual Christmas tree sale!
This year, the tree sale will be held at the Knights of Columbus (5115 Little Falls Road). The lot opens for sales on November 24th. The Optimist Club is selling small and large trees ranging from tabletop size to 10 foot tall trees! Wreaths, garland, tree stands, and White House Christmas ornaments will also be for sale.
100% of all proceeds go towards helping Arlington County youth.
For more information, please visit the Arlington Optimists website at https://optimistclubofarlingtonva.org/.
Holiday Art Show featuring artists: Peter Fitzgerald, Claire Plante, Alanna Rivera, and Suzy Scollon. At the Barcroft Community House, 800 South Buchanan St., Arlington, VA. Dec. 8 from, 2 PM to 8 PM and Dec. 9 from 10 AM to
2023 Christmas Tree Sales Begin
Saturday, December 2
Get your holiday decorating off to the right start this year! We will be selling 150 Fraser firs, freshly cut and delivered from Sparta, North Carolina.