Reimagining How to Provide County Services in the Time of COVID

When the coronavirus reached Minnesota, Ramsey County joined many other local governments in bringing the services it offers to residents online. The digital format would prevent face-to-face interaction and help limit the spread the virus.

The problem, however, was that not everyone in the county could access these services.

“Before the pandemic, most county services were offered in person and involved direct interactions between county staff and people receiving services in close proximity with other people,” said University of Minnesota researcher Virajita Singh. “During the pandemic these practices posed public health risks to everyone accessing these services with greater risks to underrepresented and at-health-risk populations and for those who also relied on public transportation, for example. Digital services pose other barriers for those without internet access or those unfamiliar with navigating online services.”

Recently, Ramsey County staff reached out to UMN researchers to collaborate on finding new ways to provide social services, legal services, permits, and more. Together, the group is reimagining how to design libraries, courthouses, and county government buildings to increase remote access to the services they offer, better distribute those offerings to places where county residents already go, and make indoor spaces safer for the in-person operations that do need to happen.

Three researchers from the U’s College of Design are leading the project: Abimbola Asojo, PhD, professor of interior design and associate dean for research, creative scholarship, and engagement; Thomas Fisher, professor of architecture and director of the Minnesota Design Center; and Singh, senior research fellow in the Center for Sustainable Building Research and assistant vice provost in the Office of Equity and Diversity. The project is supported by a COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant from the UMN Office of the Vice President for Research.

While the project was initially designed to help Ramsey County come up with short-term solutions, Asojo said the focus has expanded to think about how to meet residents’ needs after the pandemic, too.

“We’re helping them to envision long-term plans for how they can deliver their services,” Asojo said.

While the methods they come up with from this collaboration will be designed to help Ramsey County, many other counties in a similar position could adopt these approaches, too. Later this summer, the researchers plan to work with a second county, this one in Greater Minnesota, to see how the ideas might work in a different setting and with potentially smaller staff sizes.

Reimagining Existing Spaces

New approaches to how Ramsey County delivers services will fall into two categories: how to improve access without being in the same room, and how to be in the same room more safely when necessary.

One of the teams’ leading ideas centers on the idea of “navigators” that residents can reach through county libraries. These trained professionals, who could be available through a computer, a phone, or in-person interaction, would know about all of the county services and be ready to talk visitors through the steps needed to complete what they are trying to do. Libraries could designate spaces for this purpose to allow residents privacy while working with county staff and to help protect their personal information.

“They’re interested in libraries as a place where you can get not only books and information, but you can connect to experts in the county who may in fact be working permanently remotely,” Fisher said. “This is reconceiving how governments operate, how they connect to citizens, and how citizens can have greater access to government services.”

Finding creative solutions like this one, Fisher added, often doesn’t mean coming up with an entirely new idea, but taking a concept already used elsewhere and adapting it for a new purpose. Some of the design inspiration for delivering county services, for example, may come from airport ticketing counters, where a customer uses a computer interface to handle the bulk of their needs, but can always get help from an agent if they get stuck.

For the times when in-person services are necessary, the researchers are also exploring how to use design to improve safety. Decals on the floor that visually show people how to maintain six feet of separation is one option, along with improvements in air circulation. Researchers may also explore cleaning practices, such as the use of ultraviolet light, which has been shown to “disarm” airborne microbes that cause other diseases and may do the same with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Two undergraduate research assistants are involved in the project, with one exploring how artificial and daylighting components can help limit the virus’s spread indoors, while the other examines how specific materials used in interior design could reduce transmission. Asojo said their involvement is a great example of a research project that also presents an academic opportunity.

“In the College of Design, research informs teaching and vice-versa,” she said. “In a lot of our work, we really combine the academic and the research and creative scholarship components.”

The Future of Work

What exactly the post-pandemic world might hold is a question that extends beyond the collaboration with Ramsey County. The pandemic has sped up changes in how we work and learn that were already underway before the global crisis began, with everything from remote work and distance learning to online shopping and telemedicine growing in use.

Fisher and Singh have discussed how those changes will affect our lives from now on—and how we can take this time to construct a more humane, equitable, and sustainable future—in a new podcast, Post-Pandemic World, and are also co-teaching with Megan Voorhees a Grand Challenge course in the university’s Pandemic related Curriculum. Meanwhile, Fisher is chronicling his ideas in a blog called A Journal of the Pandemic Year.

In some ways, COVID has shut down the traditional economy, he said, and is forcing people to think about a broad-scale transformation in work.

“I think we will see a future in which there will be less commuting to offices 9 to 5 and people sitting in cubicles, and more about people working in a more fluid way,” Fisher said. “I see this project as part of a much bigger transition that’s happening in our economy, as we move toward a much bigger on-demand way of thinking about the delivery—not just of goods, but even of services.”