Big Time Changes in a Small Town – How COVID-19 Pushed Us to Embrace Technology

Posted on March 24, 2020

Don't Panic


Today’s Morning Buzz is by Ann Marie Townshend, City Manager for Lewes, Delaware

What I’m Watching:  The Americans

What I’m Reading:  Information about the Coronavirus

What I’m Doing: Working almost constantly

I am not sure where to begin. I had a Morning Buzz ready to go about dealing with performance issues. Somehow that doesn’t seem relevant at the moment. I don’t know that people realize how much on the front lines we are in local government. But we are… keeping essential services going, protecting public safety, making sure our staff are safe. It has been a challenge. And in our small town, we have an election coming. Breathe….  

My message today is about how this crisis has pushed our small town beyond our comfort zone in how we use technology. My town has a year-round population of 3,000, but as a coastal town we swell to near 20,000 during summer months. We have an emergency operations plan that contemplates any major disaster we had imagined… a hurricane, nor’easter, or even a terrorist attack, but not a pandemic. 

 On Wednesday, March 11, the world changed for us. I spent the morning moderating a panel about work-life balance. I applauded the deputy director of public health who took the morning away from Coronavirus preparations to talk about how she strives to achieve work-life balance. I had no idea that within eight hours, I would be up to my eyeballs in this crisis as well. By late afternoon, our state had its first diagnosed case of the Coronavirus, and everyone was in a panic. Suddenly, we needed to begin to think about how we could do things differently, in a way not contemplated in our emergency operations plan.  

We had considered how we get through a weather emergency and keep city operations going. We had not contemplated how we would provide the array of city services people expect while social distancing. We had prepared for how to function if a storm knocks us out of commission for a few days, or even weeks. We had never considered what would happen if a pandemic hit that would shut down regular life for months. But now we were in it, and we needed to think quickly and calmly. We needed to react, but not overreact.  

We have a staff of about 40 employees, including police and maintenance staff. About fourteen of our employees are administrative staff in City Hall (most notably no public relations or IT staff). With a small staff, remote work has not been part of our make-up, but now we are preparing. Between March 11 and the completion of this blog on March 23, we began to utilize technolCOVID-19 Imageogy in ways that will transform our organization well into the future. Here are ways we very quickly began to deploy technology in ways we had not imagined days earlier.  

  1. We ordered laptop computers. Our staff typically work on desktop computers. We have not routinely had staff work from home. We ordered enough laptop computers to allow most of our office staff to work remotely (we ordered 7 new laptops for a total of 9).  
  2. We quickly researched remote connect software. When we spoke to our IT consultant, he suggested that we employ a remote desktop software. With this, we can install the host on our desktop computers and the viewer on the laptop computers. This allows our employees can access anything they can from their desktop computer from their remote location.  Computers should be here Monday, March 23, and we will immediately set them up and deploy them to staff. 
  3. We ramped up our meeting streaming capability. We had recently begun streaming meeting audio using iCompass, which we use for our meeting and agenda management. Once we received authorization from the State to hold public meetings electronically, we determined that our constituents would be better served by video streaming. We quickly worked with our AV contractor to get the equipment to expand our streaming from audio only to video streaming as well. We plan to have this in place by March 30.  
  4. We prepared to use Zoom for meetings. We had established a Zoom account a few months back to do an interview with an out-of-town candidate. We were not yet comfortable with the system. This new normal, where meetings have to happen remotely is forcing us to be comfortable this technology. Don’t get me wrong… Our staff have participated in Zoom meetings and WebEx meetings, but we have not hosted these meetings. This crisis forced us to find a comfort with this technology for hosting smaller, local meetings. And we have upgrade our account so our meetings are not time limited. We added the webinar extension so that we can use it for Council and Committee meetings. This way the elected or appointed body function as the panel, and participants are muted unless they are called on by the host.  
  5. We finally established a social media presence. With the support, encouragement, and advice of ELGL members in the ELGL Facebook group, along with my neighbors who have state PIO positions, I jumped in the deep end with Facebook. My ELGL support team suggested we start with Facebook and expand if we are comfortable. Within hours, I had a Facebook page up, an in the two days since, we have gained over 500 followers.  
  6. We fully implemented our CodeRED system. We have had the system since 2018, but have not used it heavily. In the past two years, we have done a few telephone messages about a handful of incidents. In the past week, I have used CodeRED to send daily updates to our residents about how we are working to keep government going and to keep them safe. As you all know, this situation continues to change quickly, and our residents have been appreciative of this outreach.  

When we shut down City Hall we were not yet ready to have people working from home, but we quickly began to figure it out. How do you run a city while maintaining social distancing? You stream public meetings so that the public can participate from a remote location. You allow your staff to work from home, providing the technology they need to make it work. You hold your day-to-day meetings with an online meeting platform.  

If you had asked me a month ago, these things were “nice to have” amenities but not essential. Today, this is how we will ensure that our basic public business is done while allowing our staff, residents, and elected and appointed officials to maintain a safe social distance to keep us all safe and health.  

In a small town, with no public relations staff, the city manager doubles as the communications director (and many other roles). With the help of technology, dedicated staff, and the great people in the ELGL network, I am now very comfortable about how we will move forward as the situation continually evolves, while safely providing basic services and keeping our community informed.  


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