County of Stearns recognized for its services to citizens | New

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(St. Cloud MN-) Stearns County has earned national recognition for its efforts to improve services and experiences for its citizens.

Stearns County won the gold medal, first place, in the first-ever CivicPlus Civic Experience Award competition. CivicPlus is a web development company specializing in building e-government communication systems for cities and counties. The Civic Experience Awards recognize local leaders who work hard to improve government experiences through its processes and initiatives for greater citizen satisfaction.

Stearns County was specifically recognized for its efforts and achievements in providing information and services to residents during the pandemic and in pursuing the use of more efficient and beneficial practices for residents and staff.

Stearns County won honors for:

A new robust and secure website with dynamic content, mobile-friendly design and navigation hubs for top departments and in-demand services. Last year alone, the website got over 2 million views.

Its website chatbot, which offers website visitors a new and easy way to access information. Visitors simply type into the online wizard what they are looking for and it directs them to that page of the site. For residents, this adds a layer of accessibility. For staff, it provides insight into what people are searching for and guides changes to website content. Since its launch last summer, the chatbot has received over 10,000 questions with a nearly 73% self-service resolution rate, reducing the time and effort of county staff in these areas, saving costs estimated at over $27,000. In addition, when the staff is no longer able to respond to these requests, they are available to help other residents.

Online appointment booking. To accommodate social distancing and pandemic building restrictions, online appointment scheduling has been implemented at licensing centers. Due to its success, other offices, such as Property Services and Environmental Services, have also used the tool and will continue to use it in the future. This proved to be beneficial for citizens who would not have to queue and for staff who could be more efficient knowing who is entering and for what services. A monthly average of 1,733 appointment notifications were sent.

Implemented AudioEye to help county meet website accessibility standards. Whether someone uses assistive technologies, is color blind, or simply understands content better when presented in a certain way, AudioEye helps provide access for all visitors. When problems are detected, AudioEye fixes them automatically, saving staff time and resources.

Many digital forms that allowed residents to submit information and requests easily and securely to different departments. The forms allowed residents to make hundreds of transactions with county offices, even when buildings were closed.

Establish hybrid board meetings. Anyone wishing to attend or participate in a meeting of the Council of Commissioners can now attend in person or virtually. If someone can’t be at the County Administrative Center by 9:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, they can register online from anywhere. Many county meetings now have a virtual option for more people to get involved because it’s convenient.

One-on-one meetings with clients took place on digital platforms. This has saved staff time and is easier for customers, especially young people who are more attached to their devices.

Electronic registration of real estate documents. About 62% of all real estate documents are now processed electronically, up from 30-40% when COVID hit.

Hybrid courtrooms. Most criminal, child protection and mental health hearings are now virtual. Remote options have increased attendance at court hearings for both defendants and victims.

Prison video tours. For years, inmate visits have happened at the law enforcement center. Now they are done through an app from anywhere.

Online departmental auctions. In-person bidding was a lot of work. The county took advantage of the pandemic by moving its annual auction to a virtual format. It worked well and should stay in this format in the future.

Virtual job interviews. The HR department can interview anyone from anywhere, which is especially useful in a tight job market.

Employee onboarding has moved to an online process. Forms and documents are all digital and onboarding meetings are held virtually. This works especially well for new employees in 24/7 shifts or those working remotely.

The county also added alternative service methods, drop boxes and the use of drive-thrus. Drop boxes were set up in the administration center and service center lobbies for customers and customers to drop off their documents while the buildings were virtually closed to the public. The License Center’s drive-thru was used by people across the state when buildings were closed. Additionally, with the high number of residents voting by mail in the 2020 election, a drive-thru has been implemented.

“This award highlights how collaboration, teamwork and technology have come together in Stearns County to improve the experiences and lives of its residents,” said Jenny Burger, Manager of Digital Services. “Stearns County always tries to be innovative and forward-thinking, doing its best to make county business easy, transparent and accessible.”

“The experiences residents have with Stearns County are often part of a much larger life event,” noted Dory Dahlberg, technical project manager for digital services. “It can be something fun like getting married or buying a house or something difficult like losing a job or dealing with a pandemic. Interactions with Stearns County are among so many other things they have to deal with, so it’s important that we make our play as painless as possible.

The goal of the Civic Experience Awards is to celebrate and recognize the exceptional efforts of local governments across the country and amplify their stories to inspire others.

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