Digital transformation

From the front desk to online: 'Corona accelerates digital transition at municipalities'

July 19, 2021 - 4 minutes reading time
Article by Robert Koot

An unprecedented year of pandemic in which our lives were completely turned upside down – it was inevitable that the day-to-day business of municipalities was affected as well. What has been the impact of the coronavirus on public services so far?

“Extensive”, is how Simon Does describes the initial impact of the corona crisis on the business operations of municipalities. As an advisor to M&I/Partners, an independent ICT consultancy, Does supports public sector organizations with setting up their digital strategy.

“First, remote working had to be facilitated hastily,” says Does in a Centric webinar about digital services. “The council meetings became digital. That was new for everyone. An online desk was also needed in the short term where entrepreneurs could apply for financial support via ‘Tozo’, a temporary bridging measure for independent entrepreneurs."

Now, about a year and a half after the virus outbreak, municipal organizations are in calmer waters, says Does. “The pressure from the beginning is now gone. A 'new normal' has now found its way in most municipalities. The impact on internal business operations itself appears to be not too bad.”

This is partly due to the digitization effort that many governments had already initiated before corona. Although the new reality did accelerate that process, according to Does: “As a result of the corona virus, the role of technology in the interaction with citizens and companies has increased enormously. Corona has accelerated the digital transformation.”

We see the number of digital applications increasing

‐ Tonny Kempen, application manager at the municipality of Boxmeer

Extra online services for the elections

This shift to more digital services is also taking place at the municipality of Boxmeer, says Civil Affairs application manager Tonny Kempen. As administrator, he is responsible for, among other things, the customer contact system and the civil affairs applications of the municipality, Key2Burgerzaken and Portaal Burgerzaken of Centric.

“In the run-up to last year's parliamentary elections, for example, we rolled out extra online services with which residents can request a proxy or replacement voting card online from their home.”

The residents of Boxmeer were already able to arrange or request many civil matters online, including an extract from the BRP, a copy of the civil status and the death registration. You can also report a move online via a digital form, but not yet via the eService. That is planned for this year.

For example, for travel documents and a Certificate of Good Conduct, people still need to go to the town hall themselves, “but you can also arrange more and more things online with us. The transition to online is not solely motivated by corona. However, the pandemic has caused an acceleration, such as around the elections.”

Residents are therefore increasingly able to find their municipality's website. Kempen: “For civil matters such as the extract of civil status, we see the number of digital applications growing. More than 50 percent of that now comes in online. We are seeing a shift from service taking place at the front desk to online.”

No free walk-in at the town hall

However, Boxmeer’s town hall remained open for visitors last year – albeit with the necessary adjustments. “After the outbreak in March 2020, we stopped the free walk-in altogether. This meant that picking up travel documents and driving licenses also takes place by appointment. By booking appointments in the customer guidance system, front desk visiting can be better regulated.”

In the meantime, the municipality continues to expand and improve the range of its digital services. At the end of 2017, Centric's first eService was put into use: the digital registration of deaths. Two years later, this was linked to the case management system, after which Boxmeer also implemented other eServices: for extracts from BRP, copies of the Civil Registry, changes in name use and confidentiality, the latter two of which are processed fully automatically.

Kempen: “We have opted for the eServices because people’s applications then come directly into our civil affairs system and we can land them in the case management system. Citizens do not notice this, but it gives us a better overview of what comes in. The automatic processing also means less manual work, and therefore a smaller chance of errors.”

Municipal reorganization

An additional driving force behind the further digital transformation of Boxmeer is the upcoming municipal reorganization: together with the municipalities of Cuijk, Mill & Sint Hubert, Sint Anthonis and Grave, Boxmeer will form the new municipality of Land van Cuijk from January 2022. After the merger, part of the current town halls will probably close and there will eventually be one central town hall in Boxmeer. Most residents of Land van Cuijk then must travel further to visit their town hall.

And here too, digital convenience offers solace: “To continue serving residents, we are focusing on all channels. This means that we will also offer as many services as possible digitally. The option to come by will remain, but of course for many residents it is useful to be able to arrange things online, whenever it suits them.”

The role of technology in societal challenges will only increase.

‐ Simon Does, advisor at M&I/Partners

Impulse for the digital switchover

Corona, a municipal reorganization, or the desire to provide residents with the best possible service – the reasons for more digital services are many. Adviser Simon Does of M&I/Partners sees an even broader driver of digitization in municipalities and other governments: “The role of technology in social tasks will only increase. Think of the social domain and the physical living environment, but also the energy transition. In recent months, we have all seen how important data is for making the right decisions.”

Going along with the digital transformation can create a field of tension: “It requires investment, but at the same time, because of the need for cutbacks, municipalities must critically look at where they deploy their resources. Practice shows that IT is not always a top priority. It is up to the leadership of municipalities to find a balance with the Municipal Executive and the Council.”

Because the importance of digitization has now been amply proven, says Does, especially now in times of corona. “I expect that the situation we are in now will give a strong extra impulse to the further switch to digital.”

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