By Jun Choi
Roughly 17,000 unique
users visit our website every month now.
More than 100,000 pages are viewed each month.
Not bad for a community of just over 100,000 people.
In modern New Jersey history, local government officials have never faced the scale of financial pressures we anticipate this next year. Yet, the demands of the public only seem to grow in a more complex and uncertain time. And the level of public scrutiny for government accountability only increases.
These financial pressures are not promising. Revenues are down from a recession, non-discretionary costs continue to rise and the longer term debt we have as a state—operating deficit, pension and known obligations—are projected to exceed $130 billion. This is more than $15,000 for every man, woman and child in New Jersey.
Besides reducing our expenses and seeking new creative revenue sources without furthering burdening taxpayers, one critical part of the solution will have to be providing quality services more efficiently.
The reality is that many of the administrative functions we provide as leaders in municipal governments can be streamlined—and in many cases, services can be provided on-line directly to our citizens. Historically, smaller government entities may not have had access to the right technology support to provide these solutions, but in recent years, the barriers to entry and overall costs have come down significantly.
In Edison Township, while we have downsized dramatically over the last three years, we have at the same time relied heavily on new technologies to provide higher quality and more timely services more efficiently. This is one case study of what is possible with E-Government and the reality that local governments can actually improve services to residents and businesses during these challenging economic times. There are three new on-line E-Government services that Edison residents and businesses now enjoy.
On-Line Bill Payments Standard quarterly property tax bills, sewer payments and a variety of fees can now be paid on-line through direct payments or credit cards. This eases the administrative overhead significantly in our tax office. As more municipalities provide this service to the public, we can only expect that transaction fees will drop and more efficiencies can be gained from this service. You can make a payment directly from our township website: www.edisonnj.org.
On-Line Citizen Service Request This is an on-line service where citizens can request most any service or ask any question from their computer in the comforts of their home or office. After providing this service for more than a year, we have found through experience that most of the requests for Edison fall into these categories:
• Public Works (67 percent) including garbage and recycling pickup, road repairs or potholes, sign or street markings, park maintenance, etc.
• Health (15 percent) including general property maintenance or health
• Planning and Engineering (12 percent) including requests for information on new developments, zoning changes, road improvement plans, etc.
• Police (6%) including non-emergency nuisances, etc.
Nearly 75 percent of the requests are completed to the resident’s satisfaction. And every request is acknowledged. Citizens receive regular e-mail updates that are automatically generated in regards to the status of their request and a final e-mail confirmation is sent once the work is complete. We provide direct on-line communications between citizens and the managers responsible for providing the main services of government. This includes the clerk’s office, economic development, emergency management, engineering, finance, fire department, health and human services, human resources, information technology, legal, library, planning, police department, public works, purchasing, recreation and zoning.
This is a powerful management tool as well. We receive 150 to 250 new citizen service requests every month and these requests are managed in an organized fashion internally so our directors see what services we are providing well and what services can use improvement.
Though we do not track the age or background of the citizen making the request, it appears citizens of all ages, except for senior citizens, use this service. Most senior citizens prefer to call our offices and speak to an employee directly.
This service has dramatically improved the level of communication with our citizenry. Since Citizen Service Request is accessed from our website, we have increased the traffic generated to our official township website. Roughly 17,000 unique users visit our website every month. More than 100,000 pages are viewed each month. Not bad for a community of just over 100,000 people. There is a high level of engagement with the community.
On-Line Permits The third phase of our work is to provide a range of permits and building applications on-line. Earlier this year, we rolled out Edison E-Permit. We began with about a dozen of our most frequently requested permit applications including Certificate of Occupancy, Commercial Continued Certificate of Occupancy, Certificate of Fire Prevention Compliance, Use of Park Facilities, Dog & Cat Licenses and Retail Food Applications. We are working to extend this list to dozens more. The permit applications can be completed, fees can be paid. An account to manage the progress of the application and confirmation of the completed permits are all available on-line. The completed permits can be sent by mail or picked up at Town Hall.
We are currently working on completing more than two-thirds of our building permit-related applications on-line, since most are relatively simple applications. To complete this work, however, we will need the approval of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to allow for electronic stamps/signatures of professional contractors who have certified the work. Other state agencies have allowed electronic signatures and we are optimistic the DCA will also approve its use.
Besides completing the application and paying the fees on-line, residents and businesses can attach drawings and other required documents through an electronic attachment. The more technically complicated applications must, of course, be submitted in person, but much of the information required for the vast majority of applications is routine.
From the managers’ perspective, there is a simplified way to organize and review all the applications that have been submitted. Currently, we use other software to track all the paper applications that we receive, but in the not too distant future, we can expect the on-line version to be the central source of managing all building permits.
It’s difficult to quantify the exact savings realized through E-Government so far, but suffice it to say that it has been dramatic. So far, we have reduced the overall workforce in Edison by over 10 percent in the past 3 years while significantly improving services in key areas. Across the board, we have saved over $7 million in annual operating costs. But the majority of savings have yet to be realized. There is enormous potential still to be realized in providing E-Government solutions in New Jersey government.
This article was originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 7, October 2009