Community development is the responsibility of a municipality to create strong communities that can support the residential, economic and business needs of its citizens. A key function of local governments in meeting this responsibility is to satisfy the evolving needs of both its individual citizens and society at large. When these two needs converge, a municipality’s ability to adapt is put to the test. By adopting an agile mindset around community development in particular, municipalities ensure they meet this key commitment to their constituents. And with the emergence of COVID-19, municipalities have a major accelerant for change.

Where should municipalities place their focus?

One of most obvious impacts of COVID-19 has been the restriction of face-to-face interactions. This has resulted in the need to create more digital experiences such as remote reviews of community development plans, permit applications and code enforcement inspections.

Though COVID-19 has limited face-to-face interactions, there are several unexpected actions that have resulted from those restrictions. As shelter-in-place orders kept people in their homes for several months, municipalities experienced a surge in demand for over-the-counter, simple permits as citizens sought to do home improvement repairs. This influx in demand had to be managed entirely online, proving that municipalities could quickly adapt to any surges in need.

This ability to quickly adapt will prove beneficial going forward, as it positions municipalities to emerge even stronger when things begin to return to a state of normalcy. Municipalities have long since understood that contractors and developers don’t want to go into city hall if they don’t have to, nor do citizens want to line up at the permitting office if they don’t have to. If they can do all their business from wherever their constriction sites or homes are, it saves them a significant amount of time and money. With online, digital experiences now being considered as the “new normal,” municipalities are now better prepared to address and resolve this long-standing pain point.

To further support this, municipalities will need to adopt a community development application that has the ability to present permit and development plans in a collaborative and agile online space so that all parties can review together or review in sync remotely without needing to meet in person. For example, if a large set of community development plans was added after a plan review had already taken place, multiple face-to-face meetings with plan examiners and permit techs would be required. Due to the fact that face-to-face meetings aren’t happening as they once were, the application has to enable presenting those plans in an easily accessible, online collaborative space.  

Going beyond a digital experience into true modernization

However, merely reacting to the changing needs that COVID-19 has made obvious is insufficient for maximizing the potential for real modernization. To truly evolve into the next generation of community development, municipalities will need to leverage community development solutions that offer a more complete makeover rather than a simple digital experience. For example, interactive workflow-based solutions, similar to a digital assistant portal, can guide license or permit applicants through various scenarios and workflows and then drive those workflows back into the back-office application. The result would be a deeply integrated experience that saves on time and resources. Ultimately, these solutions will be cloud-based, allowing users to function wherever they may be, so that the system is constantly working for them. 

The more that municipalities can automate systems and workflows, the less time personnel will need to spend managing routine permit, licensing and code inspection processes. This will enable staff to focus on other important initiatives and tasks that focus on organizational priorities. A deeply integrated workflow with a digital-assistant aspect would be like creating an additional staff member, as it becomes a system that never stops working.  

What does community development look like post-COVID-19?

Community development is undergoing the greatest modernization that it’s ever had, accelerated due to COVID-19. Community development departments are becoming more service-oriented toward the needs of their end-users and customers to meet them where they are, whether it be on their phones, in their homes or at construction sites, rather than at a city hall downtown.

In the next several years, municipalities will continue to meet the needs of its citizens thanks in part to the adaptability shown during these past several months. Community development solutions will continue to be simplified and streamlined for flexible use, allowing it to be easier for municipalities to manage and implement sound community development plans in the years ahead post COVID-19.