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Getting the (Digital) Word Out to Small Businesses

Within days of shifting from office operations in mid-March 2020 to fully remote work, Laura Kennedy and her team faced a massive undertaking: distributing financial aid to suffering businesses.

This kind of undertaking wasn’t unique to the town of Silverthorne, Colorado, where Kennedy serves as Finance Director. But what makes this story so compelling and noteworthy is the light it sheds on the critical role of digital operations in government. For many agencies, their relationship with paper is complex and entrenched into processes and the way individuals and organizations interact with them.

COVID-19 has proven that something so seemingly benign as paper can undermine well-intentioned government efforts if left unchecked.

Challenge: So back to the challenge that Kennedy and her team were up against. In late March 2020, Silverthorne’s Town Council authorized $350,000 in assistance for independently owned local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The resort community is about 70 miles west of Denver in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and local businesses are the town’s lifeblood.

“Town services such as snowplowing, public safety, etc., are dependent on sales tax revenues generated by local businesses. We need our local businesses to be successful,” Kennedy said.

COURSE OF ACTION: Tap Into Existing Tech

Adaptability and resilience were key in coordinating both the time and method through which the town would make businesses aware of the funds, verify their eligibility and disburse the money.

“It wouldn’t have been possible with paper applications…and faxes,” Kennedy told GovLoop in an interview. On top of that, her team had a limit on employee overtime because of budget constraints brought by COVID-19.

Silverthorne had an existing partnership with a software development firm for its document management needs, and had built on that relationship a few years back to streamline the business licensing process for new applications and renewals. That investment made it possible for the town to quickly send pre-populated forms to potentially qualifying businesses and verify their information.

Kennedy credits a team member who’s familiar with the business license process for suggesting that the town tap into existing technology investments to streamline grant disbursements.

What happened: Emails went out within days to about 400 organizations on the town’s business license list that met the funding criteria, such as being within the town limits and current on sales tax filing. The email included a brief summary of the Sustain Silverthorne Emergency Business Relief Grant Program and references and links to online information or transactions they’d need to request funding.

Initial emails went out to businesses on April 1 to verify their eligibility and request grant funds. Responses were due April 10. Kennedy and her team reviewed applications and coordinated with the Town Council to determine recipients. Confirmation emails went out to businesses four days later, and by April 16 the town sent checks to 92 recipients.

Takeaway: That’s record speed for a government of any size. And with many government employees working remotely or unable to readily receive paper requests from the public, the need for digital transactions has a renewed sense of urgency.

Silverthorne started down the digital road before COVID-19. Kennedy highlighted a few examples, including the Town Council’s decision in early 2020 to add a $1 paper billing fee to utility bills to motivate residents to shift to online billing.

“Transitioning our staff and customers to use technology to exchange information, receive billings and make payments has allowed us to continue working safely from home,” she said.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Resilience Lessons From State & Local Government.” Download the full guide here.

Photo credit: Dan Smedley on Unsplash

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