Technology Keeps Government Services Going, Safely

Quarterly all-staff meetings were held via Zoom.

With the establishment of the first stay home orders, the City of Burien had just a few short weeks to figure out how to keep government open, keep staff and the people they serve safe, and deliver services in a virtual environment.

Our Information Services team helped most of the staff transition from working in the office to working from home. Our human resources staff developed new personnel policies to support the extended leave that staff may need to take to care for a family member sick with COVID-19 or to care for a child during a school closure.

Before the pandemic, only 10 or 12 people at any one time would be working from home. We quickly shifted to 60 to 65 office workers working from home full time. The City used funding from the federal CARES Act to purchase technology to enable more successful remote collaboration and virtual meetings.

“We did a lot of testing with a small group, and then adjusted how we rolled out the technology,” said Fernando Llamas, Jr., Information Services Manager. “We had a good feedback loop with people willing to try the new tools.”

The City Clerk team, supported by Information Systems staff, developed a way to host City Council and advisory board and commission meetings using Zoom software. The method they developed to enable public comment has been modeled by other jurisdictions. We are also one of the only jurisdictions that offer Spanish language interpretation for every meeting. The City is discovering that, for many, the virtual meetings can provide increased access to council meetings.

“Our community is so involved, we wanted to make sure they could follow the council meetings,” said Megan Gregor, City Clerk. “It became this quick rush into which technology and process was best. The goal was to make the council meetings work for the public.”

The Communications team supported a significant increase in digital communications, via a new COVID-19 section of the website, social media, webinars, and the launch of two new email newsletters—one for businesses and another for nonprofits.

The Recreation team transformed their in-person events and programs to virtual programs hosted on the City’s website and social media channels. This fall, new fitness, health, and wellness video programming will be coming to the Burien TV channel.

Community Development staff developed a contact-free and virtual permitting process so that construction projects that were allowed to occur during the pandemic did not face significant delays. They developed this process in absence of an online permitting system, which was slated to launch in 2021.

Inspections, which require City of Burien staff to visually see a project or issue on location, were also able to use new tools to keep everyone safe.

Brian Tornow, Engineering Inspector II, works with his colleague Adam Zapata to conduct right-of-way and other construction inspections for the Public Works Department.

“In the past, we would receive inspection requests, which include an application for a permit, site plans, and proof of insurance, via paper documents submitted at City Hall. I would need to go out to the construction site, making sure traffic control plans were set up properly and other procedures were being followed.”

With help from the IS staff, his team set up a Box account (a file sharing application) and developed a process to receive the large application packets online. They use email and Microsoft Teams (a video conferencing and communication platform) to communicate with each other and the customer.

“Instead of going out to an inspection, the project manager can send photos or even get on a video call out in the field. While Adam and I still need to go out into the field, this has greatly reduced the amount of contact we have with the public.”

For Tornow, being able to work from home was especially important.

“My wife is due with our first child in October. I was worried about getting sick or bringing something home. For me, the ability to work from home, and the speed at which the decision was made, helped lift a weight off me.”

Former Communications & Public Engagement Manager at 
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Burien faces the same challenges and opportunities that all Puget Sound communities face. Our policymaking reflects the need to ensure public safety, increase Burien’s supply of affordable housing, provide an environment that allows economic development to flourish, and building a community that is resilient to climate change.