San Diego city officials said they are using the COVID-19 pandemic to reinvent how the city operates, including greater use of technology, more people working from home, streamlined problem-solving and increased focus on city assets like buildings.

Such efforts to shift management strategies toward what city officials are calling a “city of the future” approach began more than a year ago, but the pandemic accelerated the process by requiring more efficiency and roiling the commercial real estate market.

“This is an opportunity to redefine how we provide services to our residents and the way we operate with our employees,” said Kris Michell, the city’s chief operating officer. “COVID is accelerating all of the things we have wanted to do.”

The changes come in the wake of several recent city scandals, including thousands of water customers getting overcharged, the city buying a building without realizing it had significant asbestos problems, and the city equipping streetlights with surveillance cameras without alerting residents.

“We took a good, hard look in the mirror over the last year and a half,” Michell said. “The city does some things really, really well for the public and the community. But we also have to acknowledge where we may not have the right expertise or where we're not as good at some things. If we admit that, then I think we can get better.”

An example is how the city approves the placement of new technology, such as 5G cell service, on existing utility poles. Michell said the process is notoriously complex, involving several city departments and multiple approvals. The solution will be streamlining the process and shifting to an organizational model focused on how the city can serve the public, instead of the existing model where employees are grouped into departments based on individual function.

“Right now all of those departments have competing interests, so there isn’t one person who is overseeing and making sure — from cradle to grave on that project — that it’s getting done,” said Jeff Sturak, a deputy chief operating officer.

City officials have already streamlined some operations with the Get it Done! tipster app, which allows people to quickly submit concerns about potholes, graffiti and other problems with their smartphone. Michell said she hopes to replicate the dynamics of the app elsewhere in the city.

“We want a centralized approach, so that no matter how you access our services, it goes into one portal and a single interaction that will serve the customers,” she said.

Kirby Brady, director of the city’s performance and analytics department, said the shift fits with the idea of focusing city efforts on performing services instead of individual department functions.

“The idea is really to consolidate services and resources so people aren’t having to use this particular email or that particular hotline to request a service,” Brady said.

Allowing employees to work from home, which the pandemic accelerated, is another element of the transformation Michell wants to see. More than 2,200 of the city’s 11,000 employees are now working from home, she said.

“We’ve seen productivity go up and I don’t expect that to change,” she said. “When employees are happier, they work more.”

The city has fostered the shift by buying thousands of new tablets and laptops and shifting many departments away from paper records to electronic records using cloud technology. Federal COVID-19 relief money has paid for some of the new equipment.

Hosting virtual public meetings is another recent city innovation.

The shift began before the pandemic when the city allowed online feedback on the Clairemont community plan update, but it has expanded exponentially in recent months. Online meetings have increased participation by residents, city officials said, because they can participate in meetings via Zoom and can send in their comments online.

The pandemic also shifted the city’s approach to its assets, including buildings and properties, Michell said.

The city had treated all assets the same instead of dividing them into types, which Michell said hasn’t necessarily worked well. In particular, the city needs experts on buildings and how they function, she said.

One potential innovation she discussed is “flexspace,” allowing 100 workers to share 20 work stations by having each of them come into the office only one day per week.

San Diego has one of the most complex and valuable real estate portfolios in California, with more than 1,600 properties that total approximately 123,000 acres. But the city still leases several properties to house about 1,300 city workers, which could create an opportunity for taxpayer savings with commercial real estate losing value during the pandemic.

“We will take every opportunity during the economic downturn to renegotiate our leases, whether or not they’re up,” Michell said. “Owners are really trying to keep people there.”

The city spends nearly $1.6 million a month in rent on 20 leased facilities.

Michell also plans to consolidate the city’s asset management functions into a single General Services Department in order to streamline the process, she said.

(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.