Las Vegas redefines Open Government in Partnership with SIRE Technologies
The City of Las Vegas, Nevada is known internationally as a vacation and business destination. Beyond this however, Las Vegas is a thriving community of more than 603,000 residents with a three-year growth rate of 4.7%. Historically, many have flocked to Las Vegas for its gaming industry and first-rate hospitality. Today, however, large numbers of government employees are coming to Las Vegas for another reason – to observe how the city government has creatively used technology to go beyond Open Government mandates to provide a first-rate experience for its citizens, visitors, and other constituents while becoming more environmentally responsible.
The city uses a Mayoral form of government with an additional six members sitting on the Council. A 15-year veteran of the city’s government, Beverly Bridges serves as the City Clerk.
The challenge faced by city leadership was complex encompassing multi-departmental procedures, policies and disparate technologies.
Like many thriving communities, the Clerk’s Office was inundated with public information requests. Due to the technology then available, citizens were required to drive to City Hall, wait in line, fill out a request form, and sometimes pay a fee. At the same time, the Clerk’s Office had to pull staff from other important projects to find, copy and deliver the requested documents. Because these documents were stored among enormous volumes of records in boxes, binders or drawers, turnaround time was sometimes measured in days. Ultimately, tremendous amounts of paper and time where consumed in meeting public demand for information – not to mention the untold amount of fossil fuels used by the hundreds of citizens driving to City Hall.
To address this problem, the city started to make certain types of information available on its existing website. However, the website didn’t attract the hoped-for viewers and consequently, the city didn’t see a substantial reduction of paper or resources in meeting the ongoing public demand for documents and information.
It was soon recognized that many of the public requests pertained to either Planning Commission or City Council meetings – something which presented its own set of unique challenges.
City officials recognized that attending public meetings at City Hall was a challenge for many of its citizens. Thanks to the Internet, the community was growing accustomed to immediate access to vast amounts of information from all around the world. Yet, the only way to attend Council meetings was to drive to City Hall. Some decisions impact thousands of citizens and notwithstanding the city’s spacious Council Chambers, only a fraction of that group can fit into City Hall at one time. Although meeting minutes were posted to the web for public access, Bridges admitted, “A transcript of a meeting cannot capture the essence of the debate or discourse – something which citizens were starting to demand.” Due to the relatively low number of people hitting the city’s website, it proved to be an ineffective way of communicating upcoming meeting agendas, meeting minutes, etc. “We didn’t have anything that would help us reach our constituents in a manner prescribed in the Open Government legislation,” Bridges would later recount. “The Internet held great promise according to research, but we were not yet seeing the desired results.”
Although some cities were using local cable access to broadcast public meetings, city officials didn’t feel it met their needs. If citizens missed the broadcast, their only recourse was to order the VHS tape and sit through hours of a recorded meeting to find the topic of interest. If a citizen didn’t know in which meeting a topic was discussed, that burden then fell upon the shoulders of the Clerk to track it down.
Something was needed that would solve the above challenges and place information and documents into the hands of the public in an easy, convenient and searchable manner, make real strides towards Open Government, and do so under budget. If the city could accomplish this, it should be able to shorten the lines in its offices and reduce the amount of paper and personnel required to meet this public demand.
Bridges was then commissioned to spearhead a task force to investigate alternatives. What was needed, was one system on a single platform that included all of the elements demanded by the city’s circumstances – namely, agenda automation, minutes creation, streaming video, search and archival capabilities, a public website, and scalable enough to expand to the entire city.
A Better Solution
Las Vegas chose SIRE Technologies who had previously helped the city meet its agenda management needs. Bridges and her team worked closely with SIRE to implement a comprehensive system that managed the entire life cycle of their agenda items including minutes creation and searchable streaming video. The result was the addition of SIRE Minutes Plus and SIRE Video Plus.
Minutes Plus allowed the city to create meeting minutes on agendas sometimes exceeding 160 items and publish those minutes to the city’s website within 24 hours. With no limits on the number of types of meetings, the city uses Minutes Plus to create minutes for a large variety of meeting types. “With the new solution, we have absolute control of the agenda items during a meeting. Right there on the screen; we see all the items we need to. It is user-friendly and very straightforward to say the least,” Bridges said. Features like “meeting within a meeting,” spell check, subordinate motions, multiple roll-call capabilities, the ability for multiple people to record minutes simultaneously, Minutes Plus met the Clerk’s demanding needs.
Video Plus time stamps the meeting video while broadcasting live on the Internet. For those who cannot watch the meeting live, the system records video for later viewing. Once recorded, the time stamped video is linked to the meeting minutes and supporting materials giving constituents complete access to all pertinent information in an easy to use, convenient manner on the city’s website.
SIRE also offers the ability to record offsite meetings. This enables the city to record and post meetings (complete with audio) to their website that are not held in Council Chambers.
With this new solution, content can either be hosted on site, or with SIRE. SIRE uses a secure co-locate facility protected against biohazards, earthquakes, etc. Las Vegas decided to leverage this co-locate facility with its redundant air conditioners, electricity and broadband providers to ensure constant 24/7 access to its information by its citizens.
Because all components (agenda management, minutes and video) were now offered by a single provider on a single platform, Bridges and her staff were finally able to rid themselves of the hassles associated with supporting multiple providers.
The city has seen a variety of direct and indirect benefits and savings as a result of implementing Agenda Plus, Minutes Plus and Video Plus.
“One of our objectives was to make it easy to record information and push it out to those who need it,” Bridges said. “We can now track video and couple it with the minutes for meetings within meetings. Sometimes, we have two separate meetings at the same time. In the past, we would have a record for only one meeting, but two separate agendas. It was a huge process to break it out and tie it back to the agenda.”
For instance, Redevelopment meetings are held the morning before Council. The City Council Meeting is in two sections, morning and afternoon. The City Council Addendum Meeting is in between them. “With our new system in place, we can use a pause feature, work AM and PM sessions separately within the same meeting, and have multiple employees work on the same section of the meeting,” Bridges said. “This has enabled us to utilize city staff much more efficiently while, at the same time, provide a faster turnaround.”
In addition to the Clerk realizing value from SIRE, the Planning Commission is also finding its constituents are starting to move to the web to find needed information. Citizens can now find and retrieve items related to zoning, variances, special use permits, site development plans, master plans for streets and highways, vacations and districting on the city’s website.
With a vast wealth of information and a rich user experience now available to everyone online, coupled with a convenient delivery mechanism, the city has seen the desired benefits of more people using the Internet to access documents instead of driving to City Hall. Research conducted by the city’s Information Technologies Department and the Clerk’s staff has concluded the following:
- The number of people visiting the Las Vegas website to access documents and information has risen from 25,000 access hits per month in January 2005 to 160,000 access hits in January 2008.
- Labor and costs associated with public information requests has decreased. The Clerk’s office recorded that paper record production has dropped by 40%. Las Vegas is now able to supply requested information in an electronic format 80% of the time, thereby eliminating the need to print or copy responses on 80% of their responses.
- There has also been a reduction in the requests for recordings of public meetings (people are watching it online via the Las Vegas website instead). The requests for VHS recordings have dropped by approximately 50%. The request for DVD/CD versions of public meetings have also dropped by approximately 10%.
In addition, the city is now able to provide the public with the same rich experience on DVD’s that contain everything the website contains, namely, the agenda items, supporting materials as well as the video.
The city also realized the unexpected benefit of seeing more people beyond the ‘regulars’ starting to access documents and watch meetings via the Internet. This means the City has reached its goals of Open Government objectives as well as finding an effective tool to drive information to its citizens.
Without the support of Joseph Marcella, CIO of the Department of Information Technologies, and his staff, this enterprise-wide software application could not have been implemented in such a satisfactory manner and allow for continual growth and improvement as they find ways to constantly enrich the user experience internally and on the Internet.
“Besides offering more functionalities than its competitors, SIRE Technologies was also the only vendor who was willing and able to provide us with a Proof of Concept before we made our final vendor selection”, Bridges says. “SIRE took our actual data and showed us how it would work which, in the end, resulted in a much quicker implementation timeframe than anticipated.”
The Las Vegas team has worked diligently to maintain their ability to empower citizens with information. Bridges admits it was not always easy, nor was the path to efficiency perfectly smooth, but the support from SIRE was never questioned.
“Once we purchased the solution, and had them on site, SIRE has consistently proven to be there for us at every turn. It’s not to say we haven’t had challenges, but they were always addressed immediately. If I had to give them a grade on their customer support, I’d give them an A plus, plus,” Bridges said.