Santa is coming early this year and he’s bringing local government a bag full of volunteer hours from tech developers. This Christmas cheer is being spread by ELGL and another professional association (that shall remain nameless until January 2015) who are creating an initiative to match software developers to civic projects. Details of the initiative will be announced in early 2015.
In anticipation of the initiative, we asked our members to answer the following question,“What hard to solve issues are you currently grappling with that might benefit from technology?” Local government professionals from cities across the country responded with ideas ranging from a financial dashboard to a program that would push performance management data to front-line workers.
We preface our analysis by acknowledging two themes that emerged from the survey responses.
- Technology can allow government to work better and smarter.
- Technology can improve government services by making it easier for citizens to obtain and submit information in the traditionally bureaucratic halls of government.
These themes may be a no-brainer but look around in your office and count the number of your co-workers who would agree with these two themes.(Didn’t take long, did it?)
In this series of articles, I’ll review survey results and the next steps to solving these civic challenges.
Large cities, such as Boston and San Francisco, are ahead of the technology curve. These larger cities tend to have apps, mobile-friendly websites, and performance dashboards, however, they are not without challenges. For example, a survey respondent believes,
“Larger cities are challenged to operate more as one cohesive entity. Similar to other government services, technology services can be siloed in large organization.They need to start small with sharing resources, where will that lead?”
Smaller local governments face limited resources to pursue tech initiatives. Our survey respondents were vocal that the ELGL initiative could help by making sure that projects were scaleable to meet the needs of all cities.
Now that we have the framework for the initiative, here are six categories of projects that survey respondents have on their wishlist.
Check Out My Dashboard
A “dashboard” is becoming as trendy as the terms “sustainability” and “economic development.” We use these terms all of the time but they are often defined differently among cities. For our definition of “dashboard”, we turn to the Mitten State, in particular, the City of Berkley, MI that describes a dashboard like this,
Your car’s dashboard is a visual display of the status of your vehicle – speed, oil pressure, mileage, etc. Similarly, the city’s financial dashboard displays the status of the city’s finances. Berkley’s financial dashboard provides information on our: Fiscal stability, Economic strength, Crime Rate; and Overall quality of life.
Developing a user-friendly “dashboard” is the most common need according to survey respondents. Adding a “dashboard for finance would be amazing,” says one respondent.
Cities, without a dashboard, want one to better communicate how the public dollar is being spent. On a city dashboard, citizens might be able to access budget information, crime maps and statistics, engagement tools, related deliverables, and easy-to-understand graphs.
Similar to your Mom’s casserole, a dashboard is viewed by some as a chance to throw everything in one place and then hope it turns out well.
Peace, Love, and Open Data
Open data and dashboards are used interchangeable by some; however, open data is the act of making information available. Returning to the casserole example: open data is the “stuff” (i.e: wilty lettuce, outdated salad dressing, etc.) in the refrigerator that is thrown into your mom’s casserole (i.e dashboard).
Open data can be included on a dashboard but it also can be presented as a link on the city’s website, or in electronic communication. Whatever the case, survey respondents were united in the need for more open data. They view opening up public data on a digital platform as a key step in becoming more transparent and accountable and allowing citizens to “see and feel” the data.
Examples of open data mentioned, in survey responses, were raw numbers from a broadband adoption survey or information about broadband availability at commercial buildings and residences.
Whether it’s open data or dashboards, local governments have tremendous ground to make up. One finance staffer summed it up, “our transparency with financial and budget data is boring, un-dynamic, behind the times (think PDFs).
Who doesn’t love a good ol’ map especially public administrators? This held true in our survey as respondents mentioned a need for better use of GIS technology in mapping. They want maps, not just for internally use, but also public facing maps.
Many organizations are already using GIS data in developing maps. What these organizations want is the ability to create more pertinent maps to the average citizen. It’s the belief of a few respondents that map-based tools allow us to tell a more persuasive story to the public.
One respondent noted,
We have fancy maps which show data that is not pertinent to the average residents. We can show every park, we can depict land use, we can create a map that shows a picture of your alderman, but we can’t seem to tell our citizens practical information like what day garbage pickup is, when recycling day is, or if their water bill is due.
Let’s get this out of the way first – local government websites are abysmal, and unfortunately, a city’s website is a high profile communication tool. Local government has made a effort in recent years but the majority of websites remain cringe-worthy. Developers could play a huge role in improving local government sites according to a number of survey respondents.
A city’s website is the most common outlet, in many communities, for informing the public. Ironically, local governments (especially in small to medium sized cities) are dedicating little or no professional resources to keeping the website current and informative. Which leaves us with this, as noted by one respondent, “our website is stale: we have a promise of “Web 2.0″ but I am not optimistic.”
An App for That
Increasingly local governments are developing apps to provide better services to citizens. Some apps are low-cost and easy to create (Yapp), some apps are created by a third-party (SeeClickFix), and some are developed internally. Reporting potholes and code violations is a common use of an app in local government, and was identified as a need by a number of local governments participating in the survey.
Before creating an app, local government needs to ask, “what will an app provide that my website doesn’t?” If your organization has a mobile ready website, an app may not provide extra benefit. Further, an organization must ask, even if the app provides an added benefit, is it worth the cost.
If a local government develops an app, the app must to encompass all pertinent information. For example, as noted by one respondent, citizens want integrated apps. If you have a parks app it should include regional, state, and national parks. Citizens do not want apps that are duplicative and not all-encompassing.”
Another bit of advice, “develop an mobile app that shares the most pertinent information and plays to your strengths. Otherwise we become mired into trying to update a plethora of little used and irrelevant content.
Sorting Through the Noise
Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Ello, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+…..on and on we could go. There is no shortage of communication outlets for cities in today’s information age. Our survey respondents want help sorting through the myriad of options. Some of their wants may be solvable by a developer while others might be more suited for a communications staffer.
Regardless, here’s a snapshot of engagement needs.
- Help us learn how to leveraging social media to reach citizens,
- Improve how we communicate a government budget,
- Develop a complete community calendar on our website,
- Help us find a way to connect local elected leaders, the community, and industry to see the value of a technology investment,
- Integrating our website with video streaming or access to televised meetings is a high priority, and
- Advance how we connect with different local governments.
It would be great if developers could find new revenue streams, create an Ebola vaccine, and remove spam from our Facebook timeline.
A number of survey responses did not fit neatly into a category but are important to highlight.
- Robust and easy to maneuver library of sample documents for city leaders — sample RFPs, model ordinances, interlocal agreements, policy examples, etc.
- Interconnectivity between programs and applications (for example, our asset systems do not communicate but theoretically could using SQL)
- Electronic agenda management,
- Business licensing redo to gather actual economic development data from the licensing database
- Community resilience for climate-driven disasters, growth management – planning for 20yrs of growth using existing info, urban food supply chain and consumption/capacity, community health measurements
- Software compatibility … we have several different programs that operate independently and the fields have to be populated by operator interface
- Providing support to govts that are implementing IT security measures based on our guidance.
- High speed internet primary via fiber needs to become a municipal service similar to water and sewer.
- Replacement/upgrade of an ERP system.
- Mobility and self serve – online capacity to support reliable back end.
- Our biggest challenge right now is that our billing software is not compatible with issuing monthly bills. The process in place seems needlessly complicated and our online payment portal is very lackluster. I suspect residents do not use the online pay option because our online bill pay portal is so dated that it looks unsecure. This would be the easiest fix.
What’s clear is all levels of local government can benefit from technology. Management gains better data to make policy level decisions and front-line workers are better positioned to make decisions while in the field.