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Podcast: Technology & Change Management with Jamie Hellen, Franklin, MA

Posted on November 27, 2020


Jamie Hellen - GovLove

Jaime Hellen

Jamie Hellen
Town Administrator
Town of Franklin, Massachusetts
LinkedIn


Doing it all. Jamie Hellen, Town Administrator for the Town of Franklin, Massachusetts, joined the podcast to talk about innovation, change management, and responding to COVID-19. He shared how the Town takes a customer focused approach to their work and the freedom departments have to implement new technology. He also discussed how smaller local governments have to manage large issues with fewer resources.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

 

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Episode Transcript

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Hi ya’ll, it’s Emily at ELGL. Cohorts for 2021 are now open and you can take up any of the issues that you’re most interested in learning more about in data citizenship, creative placemaking, justice and equity,  valuing engagement and building resiliency. You can read more today at elgl.org/cohorts and applications are due December 15. Hope we see you there.

Kirsten Wyatt

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon, this is GovLove, a podcast about local government. GovLove is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co-founder and executive director and today I’m joined by Jamie Hellen, the Town Administrator for Franklin, Massachusetts. Jamie, welcome to GovLove.

Jamie H Franklin

It’s great to be here. How are you Kirsten?

Kirsten Wyatt

Wonderful, thank you. So today’s episode is a little different. The recording is from a webinar that we did with Jamie and it was so interesting and compelling that we decided to turn it into a GovLove episode. Jamie talks about his approach to digital government and creating a culture of innovation. And we think you’ll enjoy it just as much as our webinar participants did. But before we get started, we have a lightning round. Jamie, what is your most controversial non political opinion?

Jamie H Franklin

My own personal opinion?

Kirsten Wyatt

Yes. About anything, anything under the sun.

Jamie H Franklin

That Prince is the best guitarist in the history of the world. All right,

Kirsten Wyatt

All right, that’s a good one. And where was your most memorable vacation?

Jamie H Franklin

Portugal.

Kirsten Wyatt

And why was it so memorable?

Jamie H Franklin

I would say it was most memorable just for all of the activities is specifically at the

Kirsten Wyatt

Wonderful. And then last lightning round question. If you could only eat one thing for lunch for the rest of the year, what would it be?

Jamie H Franklin

Tacos.

Kirsten Wyatt

All right, so now we’re gonna switch over to the recording of Jamie and me when we talked about digital government in Franklin, Massachusetts. And so tell us more about your role as town administrator, and share with us more about the structure of government, for those of us who aren’t familiar with New England structures.

Jamie H Franklin

Thank you so much, Kirsten, and appreciate being a part of the presentation today. Just welcome, everybody. It’s great to have everyone during their lunch hour and appreciate everybody taking some time to check in and hopefully, hopefully at the end, we’ll be able to answer some some questions. So for those of you who aren’t from the northeast, the town of Franklin, you’ll see at the top left corner there statue of Ben Franklin. The first question everybody always asks me nationally when you go to national conferences is, were you named after Ben Franklin? And the actual truth is yes. He’s the story goes, he donated a few hundred books back way back, you know, hundreds of years ago. They’re actually on a big display in a public library, and in the town that Franklin was born. Over the course of the last, you know, couple of years since its formation almost 250 years ago, I have counted about the size of about 35,000, which is, which is for New England standards is probably right in the middle in terms of city size. We do have a city form of government. Actually we’re known as the city known as the town of Franklin. For those of you not familiar with Massachusetts or New England, we have little tiny separate municipalities, whereas most of you, from, from across the rest of the country typically work in a county form of government or have a lot of county structure. Our county structure in New England is not very strong. The municipal structure is known as Home Rule structure, which is you know, we have a lot of traditional local rights. We have a budget of about $130 million. That includes our water and sewer funds as well. And socio economically the town of Franklin again is right in the middle class. I’m very proud to say one of the features that makes Franklin very special is it is a still to this day, a very diverse community with diverse housing stocks, a diverse income. Most folks here are middle middle class, upper middle class or lower middle class. We don’t have a very what I would kind of frequently say like a big high rent district. We’re not an excessively affluent community relative to everyone else. And we’re not also we are fortunate enough to not have a tremendous amount of poverty in the town of Franklin.

Kirsten Wyatt

Can you tell us more about how you got to the Town Administrator role? What was your career path like? And did you dream about being a town administrator when you were when you were little?

Jamie H Franklin

I definitely did not dream of it when I was little. I had no idea they existed. I was really fortunate where I grew up. I grew up in a really, really small farm town. And I was actually just hoping that maybe I would be able to work at the DPW actually, because I just love being outside. You know, and just like everything else in life, I guess for some of us, we just kind of, you know, hop on and and see where it goes. And, you know, this is by far been the most pinnacle of my career. It’s just been such a joy. It’s an amazing job. It’s an amazing community with a couple residents actually on today. Former Town Councilor Brett Feldman, a couple of folks. But I got my start actually working for then Governor Paul Cellucci and one of his cabinet secretaries are the environmental related issues, which is something that you know I kind of studied in college, and went to school in North Carolina, even though I grew up in Massachusetts, and, and just kind of got to, you know, basically worked at the statehouse for some state senators for about 10 years. And then after a while, that kind of burnt out with the politics, at least in the state and federal level and decided to put my put my career where a lot of my family actually had, which is a local government. A lot of aunts and uncles that I had were cafeteria workers, or custodians or DPW guys, and I guess somewhere along the line, I probably just fell into that lap. So maybe I just kind of came home as my life is probably charted for me already. But it’s an incredible career for folks that want to, you know, check it out, you know, have any questions they can go to my LinkedIn page, has a little bit of description there on all the different levels. But, you know, I love public service. It’s just kind of a natural fit. I guess I’m just one of those people who, you know, just in some people know me really well. I mean, I’m extremely passionate about this. And I’m very passionate about what we do, because I’m passionate about the end result and how all of our quality of lives are affected by this and I think in 2020 that’s probably more evident than ever.

Kirsten Wyatt

And so, you know, talking about 2020, how has this year been? And what I mean, of all of the surprises that have been thrown everyone’s direction, you know, what has surprised or challenged you the most this year so far?

Jamie H Franklin

That’s a great question. I mean, if if it wasn’t COVID, obviously, globally, right, there just would have been something else. I think a lot of other town managers can relate to that comment, right? And that there’s always going to be stuff that comes up. I think the thing that’s most shocking are the non COVID related things that still seem to creep up on a day to day basis. And, you know, I think that, you know, I think you always in this job, or the superintendent of schools is another great example, I think you just come to learn to expect the unexpected, and as much as a cliche as it is, nothing really surprises me anymore. And I think 2020 you know, there’ll be a million books written on it, you know, probably next next month already, right? But at the end of the day, this is obviously a hallmark year for everybody for a lot of reasons. And, you know, I just think that every time you wake up in the morning, and you see something new in the headlines, you see a new dynamic in your inbox, you see a new complaint or even a even a success story. You’re just almost never surprised because we’re all reevaluating our lives, right. And when you have this many people moving around evaluating jobs where they live, home care, kids, you’re going to have some unique experiences come from that. So you know, any years is expect the unexpected, but obviously, this year is really ….

Kirsten Wyatt

And so we’ve had webinars here with ELGL, with leaders from very large communities, and some of the and talked about some of the challenges and some of the opportunities as they faced COVID response and recovery. Umm share with us more about smaller communities and how smaller communities might kind of lag behind larger ones in their ability to be agile or be innovative in local government, or are you seeing that small communities have more of an advantage?

Jamie H Franklin

We’re no small communities, at least in New England, I think the small communities do not have an advantage in some of this. Yeah, they may see fewer problems. Whereas the larger city is just going to see more stuff. But I think they also have less capacity. They have less ability to cross train. They have fewer resources to invest in the needed investments that we all kind of need to do to stay in touch. Right? I can’t believe we’re still talking about broadband, sometimes around the country. But even in Massachusetts, you know, there’s certain parts of Western Mass that certainly struggle from even broad, good, solid broadband connection. I think that a lot of those communities in Massachusetts or western part of the state, even central part of the state, parts of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, you know, it’s hard when you’re a small town with fewer dollars to be able to go out and invest in online permits, you know, fewer dollars to be able to stretch, stretch them. And I know, we’ll talk about it a little bit more. But, you know, when we started with online permitting, we could have never envisioned some of the things that we wouldn’t use it for this year. But it was a tool that was there. And we used it and got the job done, because we were in the moment of you know COVID, right. So I think the fact that you just have less capacity, if somebody goes out in a small town, and your human resources director or your finance director is high risk, or they got COVID, or, you know, you’re at a really significant disadvantage, where even in a town like Franklin, being a mid sized community, you know, we’re able to, there’s always a backup that’s there. And there’s always a plan B, for virtually every office. It’s something that we stress very heavily here, and we will talk about it in a few minutes. But succession planning and staff development is a is a very, very big part of our organizational philosophy. And in our work, and, you know, it enabled us this year where some people still have not come back yet, you know, to be able to work from home or to do have somebody else to fill in that gap. Kind of like a football team does when somebody gets injured on the front line, right. There’s got to be somebody else, they’re ready to pick up and go off to the next play, and up the line of scrimmage. And that’s just what you need in this kind of environment.

Kirsten Wyatt

And as we were prepping for today’s webinar, you told us a story about how COVID did what no snow storm could ever do, when it relates to changing the way you did business rapidly. Can you share more with us about that?

Jamie H Franklin

Yeah, so one of the jokes we always have with, so one of the benefits in Franklin is our school and our this may not be uncommon for the rest of the country. But this is very uncommon and unique here where in our town hall, I have a centralized office with all the school department as well as all of our finance department, technology department, and human resources are all in one big place. So it allows us to collaborate a lot more. And as we’ve been kind of investing in cloud technology last three or four years, there’s still one thing that was kind of hanging out there. And even in the middle of a brutal snowstorm, I would always hear this from the staff, oh, somebody’s got to come in on the snowstorm day to do payroll, somebody’s got to come in when the Fourth of July falls on payroll day or Christmas, someone still has to come in. And it just never seemed to make sense to me. But I’m not an accountant. So I don’t really know what they’re what they’re talking about. And the funny joke was, is all of a sudden, you know, when we shut down town hall abruptly, obviously, like many other communities around the country, you know, we all still need to get paid. And somehow payroll got done during COVID. It was pretty cool. And the finance team, both the school and the town, I think all admitted, okay, we found a way to do payroll. And, you know, of course, the town manager, you know, most of our superintendent goes, Okay, put that in the back pocket. So we can never hear that excuse again. You know, and I think that these are the types of little things that you’re forced, that I’m sure many of you on this call are forced to do in your day to day work is just try to find a way and find out a way to get it done. Because this is obviously unlike a snowstorm we can predict a couple days out, this came out of nowhere. So it’s just kind of a funny story from the labyrinth, finance, as….

Kirsten Wyatt

Well and talk to us about your use of technology. You know, this has been a topic that ELGL has been exploring over the last few months, and really talking to our members and learning about how, how did that pivot happen for Franklin? And how is your focus potentially changed since the pandemic started?

Jamie H Franklin

It started when I got here about five years ago, definitely a priority. Where I think from a civic perspective, members of the town council had kind of gotten to a point where we need to have more of an online social media presence. I was hired five years ago, and we have an amazing technology director here. Certainly one of the most respected folks in the state of Massachusetts in this position. So it was really good team. And really what we tried to do is look out 10 years and say what, you know this was 2015 or so. So where do we want to be in 2025? And where’s society going to be in 2025? Obviously, I’m not Nostradamus and I can’t predict that. But I think if you really sit back and you think of the world from their shoes, you realize that there are customers out in the community, the 35,000 people that don’t ever want to come to town hall. They just want to pay their bills and move on with life. And and they do their life with their phone. I mean, we’re not the only ones here, right? I mean, I bet you 90% of Massachusetts residents or whatever, probably have a mobile device. So the goal here was to put yourself in the customers shoes and think of where are they coming from. We also live in an individualist society, I think it’s pretty straightforward these days, where everybody just wants to do whatever they want to do how they want to do it. And in a business culture, you get to say, okay, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to focus on this. And we’re going to isolate people that we don’t want to focus on as customers, but us in government, all the people on this call, we don’t have that option. And so really, the pitch was to say, okay, we’re not going to just change today and get rid of paper all together, and go to all computers. But what we’re going to try to do is have a methodical slow transformation to have flexibility and options, so that people in town that want to pay online, but don’t ever want to come in the building, or they expect everything to be on their phone can do their business. And we’re still going to have live people in the offices with their huge smiles and great customer service skills, because we do customer service training for the whole staff every couple of weeks. And we really do have an unbelievable staff. I would say in COVID, one of the biggest one of the very few complaints I’ve gotten over and over, is that people’s, you know, citizens favorite staff members, they can’t come in and see them. They chat for five or 10 minutes. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time myself on the phone, talking to, you know, what we call frequent fliers. I’m sure everybody else on the call has them, you know, folks that just come in, they just want to see and just and just see what’s going on, you know. They don’t necessarily have a big agenda. And so, you know, I wish I could have said I predicted a pandemic to come and we’d be prepared for it. But in earnest, we had done this for three or four years and just kind of slowly chipped away, where we transformed to Google four years ago, and Google Classroom for all the schools, all of our employees have everything involved or a Google Drive rather. We were able to do all of our permitting software, every department in one suite. And we tried to focus in on not overwhelming the staff with knowing how to use 20 different software programs. But why don’t we get everybody to do all their functionality in maybe two or three different softwares. And ultimately, when we had to rush everybody out of the buildings and go home for two or three months, you know, it really proved out invaluable, because really, the work didn’t stop. I mean, it’s certainly scaled back because there was less activity going on in the community. But it never stopped and everybody was reachable. And business just kept on going for some people that you know, slowly realized COVID, we had to shut down. And we allowed us for the early birds who wanted to come back right away, we were ready for them. So we feel like we’ve been ready for for just about all of this. Obviously, we’ve had to transition, excuse me some things like everybody else has. But you know, my my best advice is to really bite off what you can chew, look out 10 years in advance, make sure the software or the the system that you’re picking is something that your citizens and staff to work with for a long time. One of the worst things in the world to have happened is, you invest and train someone in software and realize in three years, it’s already outdated, and you need something else. So it really does take some conscious effort to do some research to really think out in the long run, where are your customers gonna be? And what kind of system do we need to accommodate that?

Kirsten Wyatt

And in terms of this idea of work from everywhere, work from anywhere, have tools that are accessible from anywhere, I’m guessing that you’re not, you don’t have big servers in your basement that you’re having to maintain and manage. You mentioned Google. But I’m guessing that that a lot of these other cloud based technologies have been key to being able to make that pivot so quickly when you had to shut down.

Jamie H Franklin

That’s it. It’s an excellent point. And that’s something that tech director and I have not completely weeded off from, but we’re in the transition of actually getting rid of the servers. While we were going to probably phase them out in a year or two. I don’t know if that will still be on track, of course. But that’s exactly it, is that you’re paying for, you know price which you know, sometimes when you look at all the costs that go into servers and Microsoft Office and you know, everything else, actually can be a lot more expensive than than some of these alternative cloud programs. We found the security to be very strong and in the long term maintenance cost, you certainly save on that as well. So it did allow us to do that. Be able to pivot quickly and to not have to have a reliable …..

Kirsten Wyatt

And share with us kind of that human side of managing staff through change. I think one thing I hear most often from my members is that sometimes they feel like their organization might give up because there’s too much resistance to learn a new program or, or, you know, they get the that’s not the way we’ve always done it excuse. What’s your approach to managing people through change?

Jamie H Franklin

Well, I mean, I think I said this, it might come up on a later slide. But really, recruitment is the first step. It’s really the first thing. You know, I mean, look, we’ve got, you know, we’re sensitive people. I mean, at least I am. I mean, I respect the fact that if you’re not in the finance office, and you’re doing payroll, you’ve rhythmically got down every click of the button to to maximize your day. And entering in with Google Sheets versus Excel is, is is a pretty is actually, for somebody in accounting, often pretty big deal. Many of you certainly may not. But I think what we’ve always been able to do is one, we’ve been able to hire and recruit people with phenomenal attitude with a great team player mentality. You know, I don’t get to say this often in Massachusetts, but you know, we have an unbelievably resilient staff. You know, people that care. You know, we look for people with authentic authenticity, we look if you have a growth factor in your career. And we do look for a little healthy splash of fearlessness, you know, in candidates for jobs, right? These are hard things, when you’re talking about change, you’re talking about my life, my routine, when I wake up, how often do I do this, what do I do, that will change ….. maybe some union issues, maybe, they put the bargaining issues too many people out there. And obviously, you know, if you get that resistance, which fortunately, I can really say, is fairly infrequent in Franklin, you know, you obviously have to be able to levitate up to the big picture. You know, we’re going to see budget cuts, at some point, we’re going to see some redundancies and all likelihood. You’ve got to try to put the ball in their court to be able to empower them, to be able to make even a little bit of change, may not be all that you want. But you’ve got to challenge the employee to be able to make that investment in time. And even for some of those that were not refused, but really kind of grumble at some sort of change, you know, we’ve been able to be really successful at trying to get those folks to even do you know, half a loaf is better than no loaf. The bag cliche again, but, you know, I think that those are some of the things we try to do. And fortunately, we haven’t, you know, we’ve got a great team, where we really haven’t had a lot of resistance to that. In fact what we have had is actually the inverse, we’ve had a lot of innovation. Fortunately, like in finance, I know they’ve changed probably a dozen different policies or techniques in which they were done before. You know, inspectional services we’ll talk about in a minute, they’re doing things differently for the foreseeable future if not forever. And so the innovation that comes from within our departments has been quite extraordinary you know throughout the pandemic.

Kirsten Wyatt

And looking ahead to these, this post pandemic on the on the right side of the screen, and kind of this greater collaboration, automated recording, data sharing, tell us more about that. And is that something that you’re currently working toward, or do you think you need a little bit more time to get through COVID before that starts?

Jamie H Franklin

I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. I hope we don’t. Because if we if we get to the end goal of we’re all connected, then I think we stalled on load. I think in terms of data sharing, I think we’re we’re really, we’re actually there. A great example in Franklin is our GIS department, who’s made an unfathomable amount of data accessible to all of us in real time, all the time. We have our own Google Drive, especially maps and analyses and things. You know, through really through Google and our commitment to it, excuse me, we’ve really been able to share a tremendous amount of the data, particularly in viewpoint with how our metrics are growing, what are the analytics looking like, are our permits down, how much, why. Everybody who has an account viewpoint to go log in and see all this data. And it really cuts out so much cumbersome in between time. Notably, one of my big pet peeves was like the word document, that Excel spreadsheet, we’re on version 41 final, final, final, final final, it’s like we can actually just work in one spreadsheet in real time. And, you know, I think the organization has really rallied quite well around a lot of that. And actually, I would say COVID has made that a lot stronger, because that because everyone’s working harder and differently from home. Therefore, they’re looking for any efficiency you can give them and so if you’re able to do that that’s a that’s a psychological victory for a lot of people.

Kirsten Wyatt

And so let’s talk about, you mentioned this briefly when we just started on the last slide. But when you started in this position you did took this kind of long range look at what the community wanted, what the organization needed. And how do you keep pace with, with those expectations? How do you gauge what the community wants, as it relates to technology and digital services?

Jamie H Franklin

Most important thing is to know your audience, and in our case it’s 35,000 people, most of which will never vote, they may not participate much. But that’s not the way to look at it. You have to stay in tune with the demographics of your community or your jurisdiction, I believe. Now, I’m a I was a geography major in college, the University of North Carolina Greensboro. And so I love spatially thinking, thinking about, you know, people moving and transient data, all that stuff. So this is right in my wheelhouse. But I think when you know, your audience, it helps define for you what you need to do. And I’ll use two quick examples here. And that one, I know 70%, of the town of Franklin, is of Gen X, or millennial generational age group. That’s a high number. We’re one of the younger communities actually in Massachusetts, it’s at an average age of 39 years old. But I also understand the folks who have been lived in the community, their whole life, have very deep roots here. And they have a very deep passion for not just the way things used to be, but they really believe that the way it’s always been, it’s been working phenomenally, and largely it has been. So the blow up one thing and do another thing is not going to work. And you have to have that flexibility. So I know the audience here really well because and I feel like that gives us the argument to be able to invest in those technological resources by saying, you know, the average age of Franklin’s 39. You know, this is what we should really be investing in this direction. And, and so that is a, I really think it’s a key element of you, of any manager any municipal official, looking in the mirror and honestly, and honestly describing himself, who is my audience here, and how do I reach them? It’s certainly one of the most important things you need to do.

Kirsten Wyatt

And how, or I guess, what is your best advice for selecting the products that you’ve chosen to implement? You know, you mentioned, you have an amazing IT director, I also need to give a shout out you have your social media presence is fabulous. So congrats on that too. But tell us more about how you and your staff decide what and when.

Jamie H Franklin

So what we did is we got all the departments, the relevant departments that would ever give out a payment, license, fee. You know, if you can think it, we’ll do it. We brought in all those departments and we did demos on a handful of companies. This is about four or five years ago. And we all sat around a table, we did a bunch of demos. And then we said okay, what are our goals here, and after each demo, we debrief, and then myself and a couple of staff members in the administrator’s office, we’d see some common threads, right? We don’t want to change that we’re nervous about changing software every couple of years. You know, we really want this to be secure. We never want to have an incident in a vendor that we’re choosing whatever the case may be. And so, you know, we kind of had a common to threads. And then at the end of all these demos, we had an open session with all the department heads to get some buy in. And then I kind of led a little bit of it to try to frame it for everybody. Oh, well, why don’t we do a pilot program with the town clerk’s office with dog licensing, which was like a quarter of the annual permits the town gave out, were just for dogs. There’s a good pilot, everyone sees the town clerk. Everyone has a dog. Everyone’s got to get a license. It’s 20 bucks. You can do it on your phone, do it on a computer, bring it in person. And let’s take a year and see what it looks like and make sure we’ve done the right thing and we’re in the right investment. Luckily, the staff won the program and now you have two or three surrogates in the hallways of Town Hall saying oh my god, this is, wait till you see what this does, you know, so and so staff, you don’t have to type all this in anymore. You know, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do that. You build that momentum, and then you take it to the next couple of departments. So that was our philosophy rolling this out. We knew it would take a while. It’s it’s I think other towns that have done this similar when they tried to do it all at once. It’s too much to handle all at once. We’ve tried to phase it in over a few years, but I think you got to get the buy in from the department level or at least in a town our size at the department head level. Some sort of staff input should be a big part of the decision making process.

Kirsten Wyatt

Well, I love what you’re saying about piloting and building that momentum and enthusiasm. It goes back to again, that concept of change management, and how do you help people buy into something new. So thank you for sharing that. Um, so let’s talk about your licensing center and the way that you have this structured. Umm how, how have you made it easy so all departments are able to use this technology, versus just saying, okay, it’s going to live in a silo of finance or of planning? How did you break down those silos and make this town wide city wide?

Jamie H Franklin

You know, it might be just my philosophy, I think it wasn’t my predecessors, who’s here for 18 years before me, I’ve been here in Franklin for five years. You know, we believe departments, we decentralize our government, and we empower our departments to be the show. You know, I say it all the time, all the credit in this town. I mean, people can say all, you know, you hired a good fire chief or something like that. Yeah, that’s my role is to find, again, the good attitude, the stuff we talked about before and recruiting and hiring. But, you know, we really want the departments to be the faces of the franchise. And I think no more in 2020 is that more important. Our police department has is what i think i police chief, I just couldn’t imagine working for any other chief than Chief Lynch. You know, with all the issues that have gone on around the country, you know, early on, we came out, we showed right up front, we provide publicly all of our use of force data, we have it all right on the website, we publish it very frequently, we’re responsive, we prohibit the use of a, b, and c, which is already what the lawmakers are now trying to do. So we’re like ahead of the curve on a lot of this stuff. And I think it breeds a lot of confidence in the government. But because I put that empowerment in the chief of police to make those decisions, just one example, you know, this type of a task for them isn’t that hard to take on. You know, I mean, you know, the building commissioner in Massachusetts has statutorily a tremendous amount of power, just like a Board of Health, you know, but I empower them to be the face of the franchise, as they should be. And then when these types of things come up, they’re ready to go. It’s not that it’s not a big lift for them to all of a sudden say, oh, I’ve got to go to technology. That’s pretty inefficient, you know, oh, I have, you know, imagine an organization we have a basic, almost 1000 people between the town and the school hired. Imagine if I shoved all those people toward the IT director, it’d be chaos. And so you’re just reallocating resources. You’re actually going to get a greater efficiency if you get a little more out of the staff that are in those departments, and you empower them, and you give them a goal, or multiple and be able to have that move forward. So what you see here, you know, now that I’m looking at it, like the critic in me, notices that we’ve got to put a couple of photos on a couple of these departments. But that aside, you’ll see here that I actually had no role and our technology director, who runs both the town and the schools. Neither one of us did any of this. This was all done by all of our departments. Now, the administrator’s office, obviously, my staff have done one of these in terms of what the licensing and food permits and stuff like that. The senior center on their own, building department on their own, board of health on their own, DPW everyone, Counselor, all of these offices, were able to find the resources within and the empowerment where they’re able to chart their own destiny. Again, going back to the hiring and recruitment, when you have the right people in place who have a great attitude, some authenticity, that are able to be a team player, and they’re able to cross train, you all of a sudden find yourself in a position where four years ago, myself and one other person made the decision that this is the way we were going to go with the department heads. And really, it just basically took off on its own. And I haven’t had to look back in almost three and a half, four years.

Kirsten Wyatt

I love, I love the attention that you’re paying to your staff and to, again, that human side of implementing change and innovation. Share with us more about how you engage your community members, your customers to start using these new services. I think you mentioned you have a drive up window. And so you know, how does that factor into this, you know, the fact that you now have this full blown licensing center?

Jamie H Franklin

Just for everybody’s background, one of the great things in Franklin, it’s super unique, is we actually the town bought an old medical building about 15 years ago and merged all the town and school departments into one building and as a result when you buy a medical building, you also get a bulletproof window with drive a drive thru window like at Walgreens or CVS. You know a lot of people in town don’t know about it, the people that do it, it’s how they do all of it. But the main way, again, we got the engagement was a little bit of what I had already spoken of. It, you know, going with dog permits and licenses first, you’re already getting it a quarter of the customer base in town. So you’re going to get that feedback. This stinks, this is terrible, oh my god, it’s so clunky, you know, took me two minutes to do it, I only got a minute to do something, right, you’re gonna hear all the typical complaints, we hear about everything today. The irony was, we didn’t really get any of those complaints. You know, and I think what we saw was people started using the software with dog licensing themselves. Originally, we thought they would have to have a PDF of their rabies certificate, people just started using their cell phones and taking pictures of it and attaching it right onto the right into the application. So we we almost got no complaints from anybody about any of the online permitting. And also going back to my comment earlier, it’s partially because we still have the drive thru window and we still have an amazingly friendly staff. And so for the folks that want to come in and say hi, and you know, shoot the breeze with some old friends at the trigger collector’s office, or the clerk’s office or whatever, you know, that’s fine, too. You know, we’ll, we’ll try to accommodate anybody we can. But I mean, I think we’d be also doing a disservice to people if we weren’t challenging them a little bit and we weren’t pushing the envelope a little bit to encourage people to realize that the services are right there at their disposal from their home. They don’t have to come in between eight and four. They can do their dog license at two in the morning, if that’s what works for them. And, you know, I think that is actually the biggest complaint we always get, which is, oh, they’re only open from eight to four. Who the hell can get there after four? Right? You know, I mean, don’t you realize everybody works from eight to four, right? So then you extend the hours on one night, like a lot of towns, do, you know, late one night, it doesn’t really doesn’t really quench the thirst, I don’t think, especially in today’s 24/7/365 culture. People are an on demand society. They want to get done with the need to get done. They really don’t want a lot of hassle. So we found that this kind of multi prong approach has been fairly successful.

Kirsten Wyatt

And another item we’ve been hearing from ELGL members has been the need to continue with permitting, and especially community development activities, that that allow local government to continue with, you know, major projects, and obviously, you know, recoup those fees. Talk to us about how how COVID has affected your community development department, and what you’re seeing from some of the innovations that you already had in place?

Jamie H Franklin

Yeah, it’s, you know, I’m sure like every other community on this call, local receipts, building fees, you know board of health fees, liquor license fees, ….. fees, food, you know, there is a fee for almost everything, right? I mean, and so, normally, we take a very, very conservative approach in our annual budget. And we really lowball revenues, so that we know, we can write a check that you can catch. But when COVID happens, it cuts the rug out, I mean, not that too many of us had vendors before, but pretty much takes the rug out from underneath. Where as we all know, society in America, which is bolting down the interstate 85 miles an hour and came to a screeching halt. The good thing for, for some of the activities that were going on that were, you know, contractors were right in the middle of putting up rooms and houses and, and you know, one guy’s right in the middle of putting in a pool. And you know, you can’t just stop at every single thing, because there’s bills to pay, there’s things to do. And so our inspectional services department, like right away, basically, instead of the staff going to the house to do the inspection, we required photographs, and we use FaceTime, and other technologies to basically walk around. And from their perspective, being able to do that, it was funny, the reaction was like, Oh, my gosh, this works really well. I mean, you can get down into underneath the sink, do the plumbing inspection with a phone right in front of you, and you can view it back to somebody in the municipal building. So we were able to bring in, I think, one of the months, I want to say it was May where we brought in, you know, 60 to $70,000 worth of revenue, in just the permitting fees and just inspections, just from doing those remotely for projects that were right at the end, needed a sign off permit. You know, that was all that’s all that’s gonna save somebody’s job in FY 21 right. I mean, ultimately, that revenue is literally the salary of somebody job downstairs to do this. And so, it also I think, from a uh, in this kind of context, you know, if you’re a homeowner and and this happened to you right on the one yard line of getting your house permitted or your, your suite done or your pool, you know, having this hanging over your head for six months really doesn’t feel well. And so for a lot of citizens the ability to be able to get that off their plate as they enter this very tough stretch, you know, actually, you know, actually ended up being something of a big positive, which we didn’t really expect. But, you know, those are the kinds of things and I could, you know, there’s dozens of examples throughout all of this permanent licensing center, dozen examples where our staff innovated. Another really quick one was outdoor licensing here, we didn’t have outdoor seating under the liquor license law. And we were able to use viewpoint right away, to be able to get all of the licenses for all of our restaurants who wanted to do outdoor seating right away. And the best compliment ever came the other night at a town council meeting. The owner of one of the restaurants who was coming to get a manager changing their license, opened up his comments at a public hearing by saying, on Monday, I applied for my license, on Wednesday, I got a response. And I got all the approvals. And by Thursday, I had the license in hand, and I could open within a three or four day period, you know, and that’s, to me the stuff where it all begins, if that’s the kind of candidate that walks through the door that has that kind of attitude and loves that kind of story, that’s the kind of person you want on your team, and a lot of this other stuff flows from that. But to get that kind of compliment is pretty much in my view, the top of the mountain in terms of compliments you can get is where you have a really strong good business owner in town, say something on their own merit on their own queue, at a public hearing in front of your elected officials. It’s just really buys you a tremendous amount of goodwill. And it feels good.

Kirsten Wyatt

So I think I have one last question. And then I’m going to open it up to our attendees to ask some questions, either in the chat or they can turn on their mics. But I’d love to know more about, you know, obviously the the stories or the anecdotes, the testimony. I mean, that’s amazing. But I’m guessing you have a lot of data now from all of these different departments. So what are you doing with that data? And then how do you share it and do you share it with your governing board? And how do you pull all that together?

Jamie H Franklin

You saved the hardest question for last Kirsten. Totally. You know, how much time do we have? I you know, it’s it’s really hard, I think we show we, first of all, I just got to say there’s way too much data all over the place. There’s just, it is what it is. I mean, it there’s just simply too much data. And the truth of the matter is, is data can be used to tell the bias of any story that you want. And it’s certainly a challenge our society is facing right now. And it will be for the foreseeable future until we, until we understand how all this just happened. My boss is on the council as well as the community. I also respect the fact that they only have so much time. You know, when I go to the Finance Committee for a budget hearing, you know, they look for all this historical data. And I know they can’t possibly get through it all. It’s just too much to analyze. And sometimes the stories that people come up from seeing data isn’t always accurate. So what we try to do is try to present as much high level analysis as possible, give and give some really strong points in terms of being able to see numbers. So even in viewpoint now, we can look at the revenue numbers for July and August and now September as of tomorrow, and be able to say, okay, there’s a quarter of the fiscal year. I’m not going to label out every single permit, obviously, every single thing, but I’m going to be able to chart whether or not we’re on track to hit our revenue number in our budget, or whether some adjustments need to be made later in the year. And so those are some high level analysis that I may be able to give the community. In some ways I feel like they pay myself and the superintendent of schools, to weed through some of this muck and cut to the chase. If people want it, we traditionally give it to them. Because our staff and our finance teams and our school business administrator, they keep an unbelievable level of data. But I think the benefit mainly from data is then almost more internally. You know, it’s really been able to connect people, it’s been able to connect our staffs. Obviously, it’s been crazy, like every time across America, kind of adapt on the fly to all of this stuff flying around. But I feel like internally, the data piece has actually been probably more advantageous to COVID for maybe the internal staff being able to stay on the same page and be able to take a little bit more initiative because we’re all on the same page communicating really well.

Kirsten Wyatt

Tell me more about your customer service training and tell and and how you conduct that and then tie it back to your technology tools.

Jamie H Franklin

So folks, you know, if you want to dig around, we can go into our human resources department page on our website at www.Franklinma.gov. Or just Google, Town of Franklin, …. And in on there in our employee manual, if it’s not, I’m pretty sure it’s the first page that maybe like a letter from me or something like that, but it’s one of the first page is the employee manual, is the, the the kind of customer service principle. And I guess what we try to focus on is, is can you hear a lot of rhetoric that, oh, we want to run government like a business and da da da da. Well, that’s a sound bullet point for elected officials. It’s not really what happens. But I think what you do one, one aspect of business life, and certainly my career, private sector, and trying to other family members, is to try to remember that we’re only as good as, as the customers that we have out there. It’s just like a restaurant, it’s just like a retail store. If you’re selling something people don’t want, you’re going to be out of business. And in today’s sensitive society, about a lot of things, particularly because people are paying attention to Facebook, Instagram, and entertainment news a lot more than their own local government. You know, we in Franklin feel that competition for airspace to be able to communicate to the public that that you can have a big impact right here. Your tax dollars aren’t going to Congress or stand right here in Franklin. We got to raise water rates, because we got to pay for water treatment plant that’s being invested in your town and your water quality, not in what’s going on whatever, down south. So we try to emphasize friendliness, simplicity, brevity, responsiveness, literally service with a smile again, that’s why recruitment and hiring is so important to us. You get somebody with a great attitude, team player, focus, does their job, and maybe even a little creativity. And again, like I said, a splash of fearlessness, where it’s better to ask for forgiveness than always permission. And so we try to emphasize those things. And you know, every few years, every two years, after we’ve seen a lot of retirements, you know, there’s turnover, we try to calculate it, where we can do an organization wide customer service, you know, to our our training, just to re emphasize we’re only as good as the performance that we are to the people that pay their taxes. Yeah, it’s a respect thing too, obviously. But again, I think if we want to be a strong organization, we need to show the customers out there that we can, you know, we can cook a heck of a meal. And we’re worth coming back for a second serve.

Kirsten Wyatt

Jamie, thanks so much for joining ELGL on both the webinar and this podcast episode. We have one last question for you to close things out today. If you could be the Govlove DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Jamie H Franklin

Umm, I seen a song online, a track with Prince. Why not, Let’s Go Crazy.

Kirsten Wyatt

Perfect. That’s wonderful. And again, thinking about innovation and creativity and doing things differently. Some people might think that’s a little crazy, but I think you’ve shown that introducing new ways of doing business in Franklin has proven to be very successful for you. All right. This ends our episode for today. Thanks for coming on and talking with me. GovLove is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We are a social startup with the mission of engaging the brightest minds in local government. For our listeners, you can reach us at elgl.org/GovLove or on Twitter @Govlovepodcast. And if you have a story idea for GovLove, we want to hear it. You could send us a message on Twitter or email [email protected] org. Thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.


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