County and local governments are adopting new technologies to streamline tax and fee collections from residents in a bid to save money — and build taxpayer trust — in the digital age.
In a symposium held Wednesday by PayIt, a contractor that offers local governments a digital platform to accept online payments, local officials said easier payment collections had funded first responders, parks and teacher salaries.
“Our customers are getting a great user experience that is simple, straightforward, easy to manage. It’s really built with our customers in mind,” said Maria Walls, the county treasurer in Beaufort County, S.C. “We’re getting the money faster into the county’s account, which is allowing us to invest it faster.”
But changing long-standing procedures is no easy process, especially in smaller communities where government bureaucracies have built up over long stretches of time, those officials said.
“Modernization in government is a journey that takes a long time,” said Kelly Davis-Felner, PayIt’s chief marketing officer. “The themes that support all of the technology transformation that has to happen, and doing that in an agile way that delivers value, are not going away.”
The shock of the coronavirus pandemic, and the attendant social distancing and work-from-home experiments that altered daily life, helped spur some governmental change, said Jim Weaver, North Carolina’s chief information officer.
“The pandemic has driven us to an online presence, but being online does not mean we are digital,” Weaver said. “How do we facilitate that experience, and how do we make a different outcome for them in that journey?”
Waver said adopting PayIt’s new technology meant “providing citizens the same experience they have at Amazon or other private companies.”
Officials said residents adapt most easily to the most user-friendly platforms, those that both process payments quickly and offer services like autopay or payments via a mobile app.
Residents in Fort Smith, Ark., use the PayIt system to pay their water utility bills, after customers complained a previous system lacked a mobile option.
That in turn requires local governments to ensure access, both to broadband internet and to those with disabilities who might not have assistive technology like screen readers and voice-assisted text, Davis-Felner said.
“There are real equity issues that are related to that,” she said.
Local governments — many of which struggle along with antiquated websites that have not been modernized in years — also need to improve their application programming interfaces, or APIs, said Katie Beth DeSchepper, PayIt’s senior vice president of client solutions.
DeSchepper pointed to Grand Rapids, Mich., where residents can find information about city government, make payments for trash, water and property taxes, and even pay back community development loans in one central location. The use of software as a service distribution models — known as SaaS — can reduce friction for residents trying to pay their bills.
Simply adopting an online payment system isn’t sufficient, the local officials said, to modernize government; governments that migrate to new online platforms must also convince their residents to adopt the platform themselves.
“Government agencies live and breath interacting with citizens every day,” Davis-Felner said. Asking residents about their actual online payment experiences will help technology vendors and government leaders work together to understand and make improvements, she said.
“Start small and scale,” said Davis-Felner. “This is not a ‘if you build it they will come’ kind of thing’. It is an ongoing (mission) to drive adoption, which is almost nobody’s number one job who works in a government agency,” she said. “But it is very doable. My advice is to think of who the audience is, what the right channels are to reach them, and what they need to hear.”
Some municipalities that have adopted PayIt systems have started with small pilot programs before expanding the option to wider circles.
In the midwest, an Ohio Lake Erie Fishery campaign increased non-resident fishing license purchases by 20% from 2022 to 2023, officials said.
— Laura Plaia is a freelance editor and writer based in Alexandria, Va.