Digital Form and Process Help Deliver $58 Million Worth of Critical New Pandemic Recovery Programs
For Guilford County (N.C.), the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) opened up a world of possibilities. The legislation armed the county with $104 million to spend on programs new and old of its choosing designed to help constituents mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make sure the county optimized these funds to the best of its ability, its leaders dedicated themselves to methodically ascertaining the area’s most pressing needs through surveys, focus groups, and community meetings, as well as conversations with other municipal corporations and internal department leaders.
Guilford’s research ultimately revealed that its top priorities were healthcare access, education, the fostering of healthy early childhood environments, broadband and digital inclusion, small businesses and the local economy, workforce development, and water and sewer initiatives. With this insight, the county was ready to solicit and evaluate proposals from community-based organizations (CBOs), nonprofits, tax-exempt organizations, municipal corporations, and internal county departments for innovative ideas on how to tackle these challenges, most of which were exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
“ARPA delivered the biggest infusion of government dollars we had ever seen at the local government level. It gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just deliver more and better services, but also innovate on service delivery,” said Tiffany Oliva, Program and Fiscal Recovery Manager, Guilford County. “We want to be sure that funded initiatives result in more equitable outcomes intended by the legislation, address our most acute problems, and can be sustained in both the short and long terms.”
With great opportunity comes great responsibility—and plenty of administrative work. Organizations submitting proposals for ARPA-funded programs had to undergo an extensive audit in compliance with several U.S. Treasury Department, North Carolina, and Guilford County guidelines. In order to collect all information required by ARPA’s legislation, Guilford would have to issue a 15-page application. Depending on the type of initiative being proposed, applicants didn’t necessarily have to complete every question, but the onus would be on them to figure out which ones were relevant and what type of supporting documentation to provide.
Behind the scenes, the county had to implement a thorough eight-step process for vetting each application. Depending on the type of program being proposed, a single submission could get routed to as many as 15 people spanning several departments and a few external subject matter experts. In addition, this chain of communication hardly moved in a straight line. At each step, agency staffers might have to go back to others in the review process and/or the applicant for more details and documents or to simply correct errors. They would have to contact each stakeholder individually to collect necessary data, a process that could get convoluted with so many people and steps involved. Multiply that by hundreds of applications, and it would be easy to lose track of critical information—or entire applications.
“With so many moving parts, it would have been challenging for our three-person department to keep track of every application in a manual, paper-based process of this magnitude,” said Oliva. “We were eager to deliver impactful services to our residents, but we needed the right tool to ensure we were doing it in an expedient, efficient, and more user-friendly way with minimal errors.”
Guilford knew it needed to digitize this process if it was to successfully prevent it from getting too byzantine for its citizens and employees. After reviewing a few offerings in the marketplace, it determined that SimpliGov’s integrated digital form, workflow automation, and electronic signature solution satisfied its exacting requirements. With the SimpliGov platform, which is purpose -built to comply with government environments, Guilford could customize the product to fit its internal operation, configure the entire form and workflow with a simple drop-down menu, and deliver a better user experience for both constituents and staffers from a single system in short order.
The unrivaled flexibility of SimpliGov’s online form allowed Guilford to delineate the entire 15-page ARPA application, including all 30 of the legislation’s spending categories, into a digestible format. Today, Guilford’s digital ARPA program application form reveals new fields to applicants asking for specific information and documentation based on the answers to the first few questions. This progressive question-and-answer format drastically reduces the chances of providing incorrect data or completing the wrong part of the application, thereby saving candidates lots of time and headaches.
Guilford can also tailor these fields to collect all of the information it needs initially: the premise of the project, how it will serve the community, past experience with programs of this nature, budget, and other general data mandated by the U.S. Treasury. From there, the county’s pandemic recovery team evaluates whether the submitted proposal aligns with Guilford’s main objectives and satisfies ARPA’s prerequisites. Any communication with the applicant to pose follow-up questions or request additional information is conducted through the SimpliGov system, which automatically generates emails to the appropriate parties.
Once an application is deemed complete, the pandemic team conducts a “preliminary risk assessment,” a thorough review of the organization’s track record of success, the stability of its staff and finances, and prior history with federally funded programs—the latter is particularly important because applicants are oftentimes unaware of the federal government’s comprehensive auditing and reporting requirements. Guilford then determines whether the organization has the skills to meet its high standards for citizen service and designates each applicant as either a low, medium, or high risk.
In the next two phases of the process, the application is automatically routed for governance and legal review. In the former phase, the county manager’s office and pandemic recovery team reviews submissions with an eye toward programs that are aligned with board and community priorities in order to determine which ones to recommend to the board of commissioners. Upon conclusion of governance committee review, the legal department verifies that the proposed program meets county, state, and federal guidelines and merits the board’s consideration.
From there, the board can similarly route comments and questions to all stakeholders about risk, policy objectives, or any other issue germane to the proposal. During this legislative review, the board might send the submission back for more details, depending on the number of variables that require scrutiny. Upon completion of the board’s review, the pandemic recovery team moves to prepare final document agreements in partnership with legal and finance.
“While there has been a bit of a learning curve (as comes with any new platform), SimpliGov helped us to organize our workflow and keep in touch with stakeholders at each stage. All correspondence and supporting information are archived, where we can access the status of a proposal at any given moment,” said Oliva.
Once approved, ARPA programs are up and running. From there, Guilford can schedule periodic review meetings with lead organizations—follow-ups are scheduled more frequently for higher-risk programs—directly in the SimpliGov system to help fine-tune operations and gather success stories. The county can use templates for related meeting agendas, onsite visits, and assessments provided by SimpliGov.
Between SimpliGov’s no-code, cloud-based architecture and its diligent support team, Guilford was able to build the integrated digital form and workflow to its specifications and integrate it with the county’s existing IT infrastructure in merely one week. With all of the pieces in place, the county has evaluated over 250 submissions from external parties over the course of a one-month window to apply for ARPA funds. Guilford has also worked with SimpliGov to create a duplicate workflow for internal departments to submit their ideas in that same time period. To date, the board has approved and allocated $58 million of ARPA funds for programs across each of the aforementioned areas.
Most important, SimpliGov empowered Guilford to deliver an easy, intuitive way for the community to present ideas that helped the county through a difficult period. And its platform helped simplify an extraordinarily complicated process so that the agency’s staff could bring them to fruition quickly.
“ARPA blessed the county with a unique opportunity. It gave us the funds and remarkable flexibility to positively impact our community for many years to come. But with a program of this scale came a high level of accountability and complexity,” said Oliva. “With the help of SimpliGov, we have been able to create and implement services with aims to help us recover from a global crisis the likes of which we had never seen before—and lay the groundwork for a more efficient and expedient modern digital government moving forward.”
Guilford will soon integrate SimpliGov’s SimpliSign electronic signature functionality to further expedite the execution of finalized agreements. SimpliSign enables agencies to set expiration dates for signing, password protect the signature function, reorder names on the contract, and copy others without granting signature capability.