County Manager Column from May 12, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet.

Building a Residents First integrated service model

On April 22, Ramsey County received $96 million from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In Minnesota, the state received an allocation of $1.8 billion. Hennepin and Ramsey were the only Minnesota counties to receive direct allocations through the CARES Act because each has a population greater than 500,000.

The topic of Residents First was the focus of the first workshop I attended in the role of County Manager with our board of commissioners almost two years ago. At that time, we discussed how to move from words into tangible actions and we have collectively made progress on that vision ever since. The current emergency period underscores the necessity to move even more quickly toward this vision in permanent and transformative ways to become a service delivery organization that exemplifies putting residents first in all that we do.

In the week following Governor Walz’s first stay at home order back in mid-March, we built out a new cross-departmental system that enhanced the ways in which we can interact and serve in non-emergency functions.

For one, we rapidly expanded our “front desk” reception function into a Customer Contact Center. Staff at the center are equipped to help answer basic inquires via phone and email, promptly direct questions or issues that require escalation, and track trends through contacts and our social media channels to help anticipate and prepare for any emerging issues and needs. 

We also added document drop-off boxes at four new locations and instituted a centralized process to collect any type of documents (for all but a few functions, such as returned library materials or gun permits) and route them to the appropriate place. Previously, drop boxes at Government Center East and the Plato building served as collection points for forms to be processed for functions at those buildings specifically (such as tax payments at Plato) – now, they have been updated with additional signage. The expanded network of drop boxes includes the three main regional library locations at Maplewood, Roseville and Shoreview and Saint Paul City Hall – Ramsey County Courthouse. Boxes are cleaned and emptied multiple times a day.

See an online map of the drop-off and walk-up locations

Finally, for those cases "of last resort" where in-person help is the only option, we established general service counters at Plato, Government Center East and the Courthouse*. Our staff there can provide service in a socially-distanced environment – often this involves providing a phone number or web address for more assistance. Even when this is the case, the personal connection and ability to work with someone one-on-one makes the difference between a resident’s disappointment and feeling supported – we need to ensure that no resident is left behind in a moment of need.

See a dashboard of drop box, walk up and other usage metrics

In addition, we have retooled many areas of our website to emphasize how to use these new services for specific needs. Also, we have begun providing and promoting video and remote programming opportunities to further meet residents where they’re at and help connect with them as we practice social distancing.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be refining and pushing this model further with an eye toward making it a permanent part of how we serve residents. For instance, in support of job seekers and to advance workforce development in alignment with the plan outlined in my column last week, we’ll be standing up new socially-distanced computer/technology areas inside our three regional libraries within the next month and aiming to bring other buildings online in the future. This will provide those without access to online resources a safe way to access them to promote "tech equity" in a way that minimizes crowding and incidental interactions of less than six feet. Our regional libraries will also be eventually expanded as walk-up sites, too, with staff at all sites trained into a new, expanded navigator role.

Really, this is a continuation – although modified – of our strategic priority Residents First: Effective, Efficient and Accessible Operations which we have been planning and working toward over the past number of years. Looking ahead further, we foresee working with partners to provide our services through their locations, as well as the ability to provide a full range of services through technology with staff that aren’t on site. Picture residents at computer workstations in one of our spaces or a partner space connecting in real-time using MS Teams via several languages with our staff to work through questions about licensing applications or benefits or property assessments or to provide feedback at a public hearing or a myriad of other topics and issues.   

Our CIO, Rich Christensen, reports that more than 2,500 of our employees are now able to perform their jobs remotely. This is an enormous achievement and would not have been possible without a couple of well-planned years of foundational work to build a strong technological backbone. Although we will be seeing select functions coming back on-site in the weeks ahead - as laid out through the Service Delivery design and Racial Equity & Community Engagement weekly process - after consultation and planning with our public health and occupational health experts, we will continue to successfully provide services remotely from now on.

The effects of COVID-19 have struck us in so many unexpected ways; thankfully for us we’re been planning and preparing a Residents First future for years following our mission, vision, goals, values and strategic plan that position us well to navigate this period of unprecedented change.

Making huge changes in such a short period of time may not be ideal, but it is required to meet the safety and respond to the needs of our residents and employees. We are up to this challenge. We have the most talented and diverse workforce in the region, and at moments like this is when our leaders at all levels can shine in building a collective future of which we can all be proud. Thanks for doing your part and always placing service at the core of your work.

Stay well -     

* - Our walk-up site at Saint Paul City Hall - Ramsey County Courthouse will be taken offline in the weeks ahead because it has proven to be inconvenient and inaccessible for our residents who prefer Government Center East or Plato.