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Palm Coast Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019 2 years ago

Palm Coast Connect: the city's win-win deal, six months later

Coastal Cloud, a local technology company, created the platform for free, plus $100,000 for Salesforce licensing.
by: Brian McMillan Contributing Writer

Six months after it was implemented, the city’s customer service portal Palm Coast Connect is already opening eyes and transforming the way some people interact with their local government.

“It’s been awesome,” said Cynthia Schweers, the city’s customer service manager. “We’ve been able to transition our customer service to give them a one-stop shop, where they submit a case and they’re able to see notifications every step of the way. The way we used to submit work orders, we’d say, ‘We hope it gets done.’”

Residents are feeling more confident in the city, she added. Response times are down, call times are down, and field service lightning is about to be implemented, meaning the service workers will get notified in the field as the calls for service come in. “It’s the new age,” Schweers said. “Our reps are excited.”


Coastal Cloud partnership

The city of Palm Coast has been in the market for a customer service software system for years, but none of the solutions were satisfactory. Enter Coastal Cloud, the local tech company with a growing national reputation. It was founded five years ago by Tim and Sara Hale, who decided they wanted to enter the government solutions market.

“It’s the new age. Our reps are excited.”

CYNTHIA SCHWEERS, Palm Coast customer service manager

They had submitted bids for software solutions for the city of Palm Coast in the past, but they hadn’t scored well in the city’s bid process due to lack of experience in the public sector, which comprises about 15% of their portfolio.

But after Milissa Holland was elected mayor in 2016 and then was hired at Coastal Cloud a year later, the City Council voted to enter into an Innovation Partnership Agreement, which gave Coastal Cloud access to the city’s processes and enabled the company to learn what it needed to build a citizen engagement platform. Because of Holland’s involvement, the city and Coastal Cloud agreed that no money would be exchanged; the platform would be developed for free. The city’s investment would be staff time and purchasing $100,000 in licenses to Salesforce, a leading company that provides building blocks for creating software solutions. The connection with Salesforce also opens door for future connectivity between the dozens of software systems through the city government.

The agreement led to Coastal Cloud’s rollout of Palm Coast Connect in June 2019.


'Your friend at City Hall'

Palm Coast Connect is a website and app that you can use to report concerns and request services from the city. You also receive email notifications to track the progress of your request, just like you could track a package on Amazon. The website also has articles that answer frequently asked questions. “Palm Coast Connect is your friend at City Hall,” the site says. “So create a free account today — and let’s connect!”

It’s a welcome change in tone from a typical government, which many residents feel is slow to respond, Holland said.

And because of the emails, she said, Palm Coast Connect “not only demands accountability and transparency to the public, but it also allows, internally, our organization to function at a level that we could have never even imagined.”

The city gets about 10,000 customer service calls per month, and that has dropped to about 8,000. Before Palm Coast Connect, there was no effective way to analyze those calls for trends. Were they about PEP tanks? Garbage pickup? Potholes?

"We’re making our city more accessible to people outside City Hall."

NICK KLUFAS, City Council member

“We were trying to be responsive to our residents, but if I had to grade us prior to [Palm Coast Connect], I’m not sure I could have given us a grade,” Holland said.

Using this data will keep the City Council informed at budget time, as well. Does a certain department really need extra employees? A report from Palm Coast Connect can help answer that question.

City Councilman Nick Klufas agrees. He added: “Before, you used to submit a request online, and it was a dead end. Now you’re seeing actionable results. … We’re making our city more accessible to people outside City Hall.”


Dry run during Dorian

The website also proved its worth in a big way during the Hurricane Dorian scare, only months after Palm Coast Connect launched. During prior hurricanes, the emergency team received street-by-street status checks from firefighters by phone, using spreadsheets. It was inefficient both for cleanup crews and for relaying information to FEMA for reimbursement, Holland said.

But during Dorian, Tim and Sara Hale went to the Emergency Operations Center themselves, observed the needs and helped develop a fix in Palm Coast Connect immediately. After the storm scare was over, the crews still had to check each street, but this time, they used Palm Coast Connect and communicated to city staff in real time, creating a map that impressed Florida Power and Light and can be used to report to FEMA much more easily.

“All these people were like, ‘What? We can do this?’” Tim Hale recalls of his interaction with the officials in the EOC. “Their eyes were popping wide. That’s what’s possible. This is changing the game of how the city could work.”

Hale also said City Manager Matt Morton’s arrival in April 2019 also has accelerated the implementation.

Morton said he checks his Palm Coast Connect dashboard daily. “This has been deployed well,” he said. “ …  It treats you like a real citizen.”

Morton sees a future when PEP talk issues can be resolved not by calling someone at City Hall but by scanning a household-specific QR code that will alert the appropriate department immediately, rather than going through a centralized system that will slow down the process — and risk the resident having a PEP tank overflow.

“We’re talking about leading edge technology,” Morton said.

Brian McMillan was editor of the Palm Coast Observer from 2010 to 2022. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children....

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