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I’m always happy to hear about efforts to engage citizens, especially in smaller to mid-size cities. That’s why I was especially pleased to learn about Grand Rapids’ recent success in delivering innovative digital services, answering public questions and helping citizens get things done in a new online city hall that’s open 24/7. 

Making it easy to obtain city services

The second-largest city in Michigan met with our Microsoft CityNext partner OpenCities in late 2016 about developing a new website that would make it easy—and less costly—for citizens to obtain services, such as water, garbage and recycling as well as obtain various permits and complete other city transactions. “A phone call is the most expensive interaction a government can have with a person,” said Becky Jo Glover, director of Customer Service for the City of Grand Rapids. “When they’re on the Internet, it’s a very small amount of charge but, if they can’t find it, what happens: they call, they walk in. We would ask people, ‘Did you check the website before you called here?’ And they would say, ‘Yes, but I couldn’t find it.’ And that was about 75 percent of every call we received.”

Enter OpenCities’ Cynthia Francis and Jack Madans. They found the Grand Rapids’ website typical of most government sites: “They’re hard to navigate, they’re filled with a lot of great information that isn’t curated in a way that makes sense to average people, they’re written in what I would call ‘government-speak’ (which) the average person has trouble understanding,” Francis said. “What they really got excited about was the opportunity to turn their website into a digital services portal and … just make it extremely simple to do business with the City of Grand Rapids.”

Impressive result

Built on the Microsoft Azure Government cloud platform, the new OpenCities website for Grand Rapids is already producing impressive results, which Glover notes in a recent video case study: “We used to have 120,000 calls and walk-ins to our center on an annual basis for just starting refuse and turning water on,” Glover said. “In less than 11 weeks, we have a 79-percent reduction in walk-ins for turning water on.” With more than 89 city services available on its new site, Grand Rapids also has converted half of its 80,000 walk-up payments to online transactions.

In addition to empowering the 180,000 residents of Grand Rapids to conveniently complete city business at any time and on any device, the new digital portal is improving customer service, providing city staff with better intra-department visibility and garnering positive attention. For example, Grand Rapids:

  • Recently received recognition from the State of Michigan for using its website and the Microsoft stack (SharePoint, Exchange and Power BI) to deliver hourly voter turnout results on election day.
  • Became the first local government in the country to do its own civic user testing. “Every service, every piece of content, every page on our website is tested by a community before we launch,” Glover explained. “They become our content specialists for the entire city.”

True community engagement

Best of all, with the City of Grand Rapids website enabling government that’s always accessible online, the number of positive interactions between the city and its residents is increasing, according to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss: “Every time that I’m with a group of mayors, I feel like one of the topics we’re talking about is community engagement and community-driven decisions. And what we did with our website, in partnership with OpenCities, is one of the most concrete, effective examples of true community engagement.”

Microsoft CityNext agrees and we’re proud to have partnered with OpenCities to help Grand Rapids become a digital city, delivering innovative services. Please learn more at: