What I’m reading: The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
What I’m listening to: NPR’s Fresh Air
The long-time Board of Education Chair in my hometown always called the weeks leading up to municipal elections “silly season.” It’s a time when even the smallest issues become huge. Campaign sign operatives move every night under the cover of darkness and try to outdo the other side. Candidates for local office appear at every pancake breakfast, spaghetti dinner, and sports field, in between walking neighborhoods with clipboards, buttons, and palm cards.
Sometimes, ongoing local issues take over campaign messaging, like a proposed new development, a new traffic pain point, or a recent crime wave. That’s still true now, but in the background is the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic changed how residents interact with their local governments and officials. This change has been positive in many ways, most notably in the increase in constituent reliance on and trust in local government information. I think we’re seeing this new, more connected, communicative relationship play out this election season. It manifests in elevated resident expectations and candidate messaging around citizen engagement. People are talking specifically about easier access to government information, the decision-making process, and government services.
The Promise of Engagement
In my region, it’s clear that constituents want, and candidates are promising, more accessible, transparent, and participatory government. From a staff perspective, any type of campaign rhetoric can be a little alarming. Suggestions are welcome, but they come with financial, personnel, and sometimes even infrastructure implications. And we all know that any official priorities ultimately end up on the staff’s to-do list.
The good news on citizen engagement is that it’s a promise with relatively easy delivery. In most cases, citizen engagement really means digital engagement. Effectively connecting citizens to government in a digital way translates into practical things like automating business functions and enabling self-service for licensing, tax remittance, permitting, fee collections, and more. Important digital connections include public-facing community engagement tools that allow residents to make payments, participate in virtual meetings, report non-emergency issues, and request and respond to services in convenient, intuitive, and immediate ways. Similarly, virtual courts provide flexible options to handle cases through video technology. Online dispute resolution helps individuals reach family or small claims case resolution from their own homes, outside of court hours. Open data dashboards and maps help constituents make sense of data to support policy decisions and staff action.
These are examples of practical ways to deliver on the promise of improved engagement and participation. Their commonality is that they are done best in the cloud, with cloud-enabled technology solutions.
More is Possible in the Cloud
Mentioning the cloud can be off-putting or can seem too theoretical to leaders not in the tech space. But moving to the cloud is a strong trend in the public sector. As GovTech notes, “State and local public sector agencies have long been making a move to ‘cloud first’ and now ‘cloud smart’ strategies.” A 2019 NASCIO state CIO survey found that 34% of IT leaders had a cloud migration strategy in place, and 51% had a strategy in development.
Cloud benefits include more predictable budgets, reduced IT infrastructure expenses, enhanced security and disaster recovery, and easier compliance with federal standards like CJIS. Cloud solutions also enable departments to use data as a strategic asset in the design, management, and delivery of innovative programs and services. These solutions create better connections between departments, across agencies and jurisdictions, and with citizens.
Cloud-based government solutions that support stronger community outcomes look like this:
- Transparency and open data initiatives
- Government e-services that the public and vendors can access through web and mobile apps and portals
- Interoperability and data sharing between departments and across jurisdictions
- Improved insights from easily surfaced and accessible data
These transform the way the public sector works internally and with the public. It’s also worth noting that these same solutions help governments improve equity and access to government for all residents.
Thinking about a cloud-based technology approach can help local governments quickly and easily deliver on the promise of improved citizen engagement. This approach, in turn, will also benefit municipal departments themselves, by enabling more secure, streamlined, and solution-bearing operations.