U.S. Conference of Mayors 2018 City Livability Awards

 JPG image of Livability Award


The U.S. Conference of Mayors City Livability Program honors mayors and city governments for programs that enhance quality of life. Every year, the program awards 10 mayors and their cities. The cities are categorized by size, either over or under 100,000 population. Grand Rapids falls in the over 100,000 population category.
The awards include the following:
  • 1 first place award
  • 4 outstanding achievement awards
  • 4 honorable mentions

There are two categories:
  • Cities with populations under 100,000
  • Cities with populations over 100,000

Grand Rapids is grouped in the over 100,000 population category. In 2018, Mayor Bliss and the City were awarded with honorable mention.

The initiatives that won the 2018 honorable mention were part of our journey to a Digital City Hall. Below are the chapters of our journey that caught the attention of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Mayor Bliss knew she needed to develop a Digital City Hall. The idea behind this was to bring City Hall to the people, where they're at and when they need it.

Before we implemented Digital City Hall initiatives, we found disparities in service delivery. We found that over half of the top 200 services people call or walk in for were not available online. These were complex processes that City staff developed without considering the customer's experience.

More residents from economically depressed areas had more barriers to completing City services. They had to drive further, take the bus or take time off work to come to City Hall to pay bills or complete forms. A digital front door would be the answer to bring City Hall to them, whenever they need it.

Mayor Bliss decided we needed to take these top services and transition each of them to a digital format. This would allow more people to interact with the City online in a format built by the community.

Outdated website 

Like many cities, Grand Rapids had an outdated website. There were too many webpages and not enough consistency. Users found it difficult to navigate and staff had trouble keeping it updated.

For most services, customers had to print out a form and mail or fax it to the City. This didn't accommodate residents without printers or money for postage. This also contributed to long processing times.


Unreadable content

The wording and language used on the old website were also inaccessible. Staff wrote and used big words, jargon and acronyms only they could understand.


Complex payment processes

There was a lot at stake for residents and businesses. 82% of the visits to the old website were payment related. The payment experience was difficult because there was no single place to pay for everything. Users had to wade through pages and blocks of text to try to find each correct payment portal they needed.

Customers had to remember user IDs and passwords for the 9 different payment portals. They also had to wait 3 - 5 business days until their payment posted to their City account. This means they had to remember and plan for that amount before it was actually taken out or charged. On top of that, most online payments charged processing fees.
Mayor Bliss understood that starting with individuals in the community to design and develop the new website was key.

To do this, we intentionally sought out an innovative, user-centric and digital focused company to build the website with. We found OpenCities. Headquartered in Australia, OpenCities developed an Alpha site to show how we could accomplish a true Digital City Hall.

They guided us to use cutting edge user-centered design best practices to develop our beta site and then our new website. Since then, we've developed and implemented sustainable methods for:
  • Journey mapping
  • Service design
  • User testing
  • Content creation
Based on our learnings from them, we continue to further open our digital front door.
We started design and development by creating instructional online services with user testers. These are digital services. We developed a standard to govern all service development. We researched every service and started from scratch to build clear, step-by-step instructions. We also created new, online forms that collect payment upon submission. This updated most services that previously were only available at City Hall or as a PDF link.

These two elements, the instructions and the form, were integrated into a single digital experience. We knew from our users that some people still want to complete a physical form. To accommodate all, we built in the options to call, mail or come to City Hall to complete a service.
Making sure the new website served customer needs, we held sessions to understand the people in our community:
  • Who they are
  • What they need
  • How they behave

CUT Group 

We designed services around our findings and then tested them. We are the first U.S. city to sponsor a Civic User Testing (CUT) Group. The CUT Group navigates through a new digital service and provides feedback on where it doesn't work and how we can improve it. To ensure equitable representation within our testers, the CUT group lead developed an intentional recruiting process.
We provided both remote and in-person testing opportunities. After participating, we gave each tester a $10 gift card to a local restaurant. We purchased the gift cards from minority or women-owned restaurants in each ward. This provides opportunities to enjoy local food and contribute to the local economy.
While we developed the new website, we developed and launched a new payment platform, grPayit. This single-sign on application is accessible via an app on desktop or mobile. Users only have to remember one username and password to make payments for:
  • Water
  • Trash
  • Property taxes
  • Parking tickets
We're continually working to add the other City payments. The payments customers make on grPayit post in 1 business day. That's a significant reduction from the previous 3-5 business days.

A conversational interface guides users through the payment and questions they may have. Users can choose to enable automatic payments. Customers can set it up once and then not have to think about it.
Digital services on our new website are easy to find and written at a readable level. Users can more easily understand City processes and find the resources they need. They can also choose how they want to complete a service. This means they start and save or complete a service on their own time.

It's also easier for users to find relevant content. They can browse through:
  • Programs they may be eligible for
  • Events they may be interested in
  • Meetings they can share their opinions at
Improved navigation, clarity, readability and integrated payments make for easier processes. Ease of use helps to improve quality of life for all.