Cities across the country are facing adversity they couldn’t have imagined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges of social distancing and stay-at-home orders have required new methods of keeping crucial city operations going and to continue to provide essential services to their residents.
The City of Mobile, Alabama has engaged Planning NEXT to help them adapt to this new reality.
So far, our assistance has related to two significant changes in the city’s operations:
1. Requiring online permitting and assisting new customers
Over the past two years, the Build Mobile department has encouraged use of its online system, Customer Self Service (CSS), where customers can manage plans, permits, and inspections. While popular, CSS has never been a required tool. On April 8, the city closed its in-person service counter and is now requiring that people utilize CSS for these services. In two weeks, over one hundred new users have registered for the platform. This influx of new users, many of whom are not tech-savvy, revealed a need improve the available information and resources on the city’s website.
To create easier functionality and improve the experience for CSS users, we are:
- Redesigning aspects of the city website to address common questions and help people find essential information such as forms and applications, commission meeting agendas and decisions, and to provide comments on active cases.
- Updating the forms and applications to a consistent digital format.
- Creating a series of quick how-to videos for CSS.
2. Transitioning commission and board meetings to a virtual format
With support from the state, the city decided to conduct its board and commission meetings using virtual meeting platforms. While there is little legal guidance on virtual public meetings, the city decided it needed an approach that would:
- Closely mimic the established and familiar in-person format.
- Allow staff and commission members to participate in the presentation and discussion and have the ability to share screen content and video.
- Allow members of the public to be able to see the meeting through the city’s existing live stream YouTube channel. Public comments would be collected and considered in advance of the meeting in the usual manner.
- Enable city staff and commissioners to continue to utilize the tools and existing format they are familiar with.
To operationalize the above changes, we took these actions:
- Developed Zoom meeting guide for staff and simple instructions for participants
We researched and tested a number of virtual meeting platforms before determining that Zoom would be the best tool. We developed a meeting guide that included meeting settings, account instructions, online meeting best practices, and step-by-step instructions for conducting conference calls via Zoom.
- Facilitated multiple “test” meetings
We conducted numerous tests with the staff to ensure quality control, and make sure they were comfortable with the process of managing participants and sharing presentations.
- Provided support during the initial Planning Commission Zoom conference call
The staff requested that we attend the first Zoom Planning Commission meeting on April 15 to ensure things went smoothly and everything functioned as intended. We helped run the presentation and managed the functionality of the Zoom tools.
Helping the city maintain critical operations during the COVID-19 crisis is a continuation of our partnership with Mobile. Since helping the city with their comprehensive plan and growth strategy four years ago, under the leadership of Michael Curtis, we have provided consistent support to the planning staff for neighborhood planning, training and guidance on community outreach, publicity and online engagement for the zoning code rewrite, and various other planning initiatives.