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How Do Government Agencies Perform System Upgrades While Working Remote?

Sean Finley, IT Director - Office of the Assessor-Recorder, City & County of San Francisco

Background

In March of 2020 the San Francisco Assessor Recorder, like every else was hit with the task of transforming to a completely remote work force. We had over 200 staff and only a few dozen who had ever worked remote before. We also faced another challenge; we had projects in motion to upgrade our two main systems (Assessor and Recorder) as they were both over 20 years old and we had to stay on track. We thought this was a recipe for disaster.

The property tax assessment system is responsible for tracking the assessed value for all property in San Francisco (total transfer tax revenue in 2020 was $335M). The recorder system supports official record keeping (managing over 150,000 official records annually including deeds, marriage certificates etc.).Because we were: (1) losing revenue in other City agencies;and (2) money was being redirected to relief efforts it became imperative that our projects were a success. While all new IT projects were "on hold" we had to remain on schedule. San Francisco depended on the revenue being generated by our systems.

Challenges and Solution

Our first technical challenge was to get our remote workers access to their systems. Luckily, our leaders had thought of this a few weeks pre-pandemic so we had a few days to prepare for the demands we needed to meet.

Providing access to our legacy Assessor and Recorder systems required access to desktops within the walls in City Hall – we had was no remote access or virtualization as our systems were too old. We had to setup each employee with VPN accounts and teach them how to remote into their office computers. Not surprisingly, our user base consisted largely of long-term employees who were averse to changes in technology and had never worked from home. This required us to involve all aspects of the Department including our PMO, HR, Administrative and Operations teamsin the solution as well as support from thetop - our Assessor fully supported our efforts. Despite the challenges we were up and running day 1 of the “shelter in place" work environment.

Our next challenge was how to communicate with our vendors who were working on our projects.

Until March 2020, we operated as other did;when in design and implementation phases we sat in a room with PowerPoint running, a whiteboard and a handful of people on a conference call. Weknew we needed to virtualize. At the same time this was happening, we were transitioning from Skype to Microsoft Teams. Within a month, and with the help of our PMO and HR groups, we had our virtual meetings running in Teams. We had some challenges up front (people seem less civil when they are not sitting in front of each other) but we learned how to keep the teams together and moving forward.

After getting our staff and vendors communicating, we found another challenge in how to train staff remotely We were taking the quantum leap from green screens and flat files to webbased applications such as Salesforce. Like other government agencies prepandemic, we trained by having a trainer sit in a room running through the training program while the trainees sat in front of screens and followed along. We knew we could use Teams and perform the training but that required changing the curriculum and re-training the trainers. It is also more difficult to tell if a person being trained is involved/participating while remote. We learned add frequent quizzes, forcetrainees to use their video (to see any confused faces!) and ‘plant’ some questions within the trainees trained to make sure the sessions were interactive, supportive, and successful. The modified training program(s) worked well and our staff was ready to go.

Ready for Launch!

In August 2020, we had our first “go live” with our new Recorder system. There was no traditional ‘war room’ - we were remote. There was no way to hand hold users if they struggled so we asked user if they were able to work and if they had any questions more frequently. We successfully migrated millions of official records, dating back to the 1906 earthquake (asall City records were destroyed then). The launch was a success and the efficiencies forecasted were achieved(e.g., citizens can request and receive copies of official records online). Next came the larger launch– the property tax assessment system.

In January of 2021 we had the ‘go live’ with the property tax assessment system. Again, the launch was successful, on time and more upgrades are coming. The revenue managed in the new system is critical to the City- despite property sales dropping by 14% in 2020 we only saw a decrease of 9% in transfer tax dollars because of process efficiencies.

Conclusion

 While the pandemic did create technical challenges it also created great an opportunity to become nimbler. Using a combination of older technology and newer technology allowed us tostay on schedule and keep revenue streams flowing.Having an open mind and support from the top of the organization were the keys to our success

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