Swipe left to report a pothole. Swipe right for social services. (Illustration: Andrés Moncayo)

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What Is a Self-Service Government?

Social media should soon replace paperwork in local government.

In September, the Philadelphia Police Department posted a surveillance video of a hate crime to its YouTube channel. Shortly thereafter, a handful of civic-minded social media sleuths tracked down the suspects—connecting the video with Twitter photos and Facebook check-ins—and contacted the police. After investigating the leads, the detective on the case thanked them with a tweet.

Since 2008, the city police have explored social media as a new avenue to protect and serve. Reaching more than 60,000 people with the push of a button, with updates including everything from the digial-age wanted poster to the pilot testing of body cameras, the @PhillyPolice Twitter feed and its YouTube channel have become increasingly vital tools for connecting with the people the department protects.

The benefits of “having authentic voices engage in public conversation” outweigh the threats of social media, says Susan Crawford, currently a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. Crawford also recently co-authored The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and argues that effective Twitter use is one way governments can “show their work” and get unfiltered feedback.

Up to 75 percent of the population will live in cities by 2050, so finding new ways to make city governments responsive and accountable will become even more important with time. “Cities are at the heart of citizen-centric services,” says Charles Prow, general manager of the global government team at IBM. That makes them best-positioned to use civic technology to reinvigorate democracy and strengthen the social fabric between the people and their public servants, says Crawford.

Social networking is just one of the most visible ways that technology is changing the ways that citizens and their governments can interact and communicate. Big cities like New York and Chicago have embraced the idea that, like many businesses and industries, they can best function as data-driven enterprises. But having direct access to citizen feedback has its own difficulties. The biggest challenge is balancing the need for being responsive—actually listening to citizens and acting to address their needs—without being overwhelmed. There will always be more complaints than policemen, more potholes than construction crews.

One way cities can make time for communication is to provide automated services that citizens can access directly. Permits, registrations, service requests—much of a government’s work is informational in nature, and historically required lots of paperwork. But these days, when we can do almost anything from our smartphones, paper-bound government processes are increasingly seen as too slow and expensive. “Governments realize that the expectations of citizens have fundamentally changed,” says Prow, and what citizens want is digital access to government services anytime and anywhere. Self-service government isn’t just convenient—it’s also more efficient, saving time for employees and lowering costs for taxpayers

Ultimately, says Crawford, the more digital tools make it easier to interact with the government, the more confidence citizens will have in the government to provide important public services. The way that technology changes the nature of an interaction has the power to also change the perception of it. When Chicago launched its “Open311” mobile app, in many ways it was an extension of the city’s existing 311 service. But because users were encouraged to submit photos of things they were reporting, it changed the way they felt about the service. People are more used to posting to Facebook or Instagram than calling hotlines, and, when similar programs across the nation were surveyed, users said that the app made them feel like they were helping, not just complaining. Says Crawford, “the sense of agency it creates is tremendous.”

In turn, pictures made it easier for employees to determine the severity of the problem. As an added benefit, because most pictures are geo-coded with detailed location information, work crews know exactly where the problem is and can respond quicker. Mobile apps on a cloud infrastructure are a great “opportunity to put information in citizens' hands and make citizens real partners in making government work better,” says Prow.

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A Conversation with Charles Prow, General Manager, Global Government Team at IBM

Q: We hear more and more about how government needs to do more to adapt to today’s technology. Can you the discuss approach it’s taking?

Governments realize that the expectations of citizens have fundamentally changed. So it is no longer good enough for government to be able to provide capabilities in very long cycles of system implementation programs—taking years to upgrade services or make it easier to access employment programs, early childhood programs, programs for the elderly, programs for the disabled.

When I think about citizen demand for faster and easier access to government, I think about what I call systems of engagement. Social and mobile applications are fundamentally—and for the better—transforming how citizens and governments can interact. For example, iPad applications that allow caseworkers to work more directly with clients, untethered from their desks, allowing them to be much more efficient and effective in dealing with individual citizens.

And in the U.S. alone there are about 700,000 caseworkers. Recent industry studies have indicated those caseworkers spend more than 50 percent of their time on activities unrelated to direct client engagement. So there is a major opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people by allowing caseworkers to focus more of their time on helping citizens.

Q: How could those systems of engagement help?

As jurisdictions begin to provide mobile applications to do things that citizens used to have to wait in line for or do by mail, it does two things. It provides the citizen immediate access to whatever particular program or service they’re looking for and it really does eliminate a lot of cost and workload from the jurisdiction—whether it be a city, a county, a municipality—that they’re now not having to provide manually.

Q: Can you give a couple examples of how that’s happening?

We’re beginning to see some results—being able to quantitatively prove, through analytics and social media—that there are steps that can be taken by governments to keep people employed once they get a job and keeping them off of the unemployment rolls.

Then there are examples of cities wanting to take their 311 programs, which provide a broad range of information on and access to government services—from homeless shelters to trash pickup—and put it on a mobile application. It is exciting to see so much happening in this area in cities around the world and we can expect this trend to accelerate in the future.

Q: And how far along are we to arriving at that future? Are government officials buying into these ideas?

Every about 18 months or so we host a forum on social programs. I remember that at the last program, there were large debates about the lawfulness and the efficacy of systems of engagement—social and mobile type applications. At the most recent forum, which took place recently, the conversation had shifted completely and the focus of the participants was on "How can we do mobile and social faster?"

If you listen to government officials that are responsible to serving citizens through these programs, they are way past the intellectual conversation of will this or will this not happen. Their citizens are demanding new ways to engage government and officials see that mobile and social offer powerful new tools for citizens—and employees—that will enhance the ability of government to serve the people. Now it’s all about how fast will it happen and how can we make sure we do it in a secure way.

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Using social technology can even improve face-to-face interaction. Prow notes that nationwide, there are nearly 700,000 caseworkers who are interacting with constituents, but they’re a limited resource. “That creates a bottleneck in how we serve citizens,” Prow says, and “it’s amazing to see the improved engagement when (caseworkers) have access to social analytics.”  For example, workers in employment programs can use social networking data to detect warning signs that indicate a slip back toward unemployment, and then work proactively to prevent that. In Manchester, England, a program working with troubled teens found that just a few influencers were responsible for dragging down a bunch of their friends. By focusing only on these few, the caseworkers produced better results—and were able to work more efficiently.

And as more services go digital, it will also be important to make sure that all citizens have the devices, cloud-connectivity, and digital literacy to be able to take advantage of them. For citizens in the small town of Jun, Spain, that means all residents need a Twitter account. That’s because the town has fully embraced Twitter as a communications platform, and tweets can do a lot more than express an opinion. Even the conference rooms in City Hall have their own twitter accounts: Anyone in town can send a direct message to reserve a room, and a second direct message even unlocks the doors. To make the system accessible, though, the town had to make sure everyone had a unique digital ID and Twitter handle. Just as today’s cities are responsible for providing clean water and electricity, says Crawford, it will be important for future cities to provide ubiquitous, cheap, and well-understood digital tools.

he real power of social media, however, is that because it’s designed to be used with other people, it’s inherently humanizing. It strips away barriers—real or perceived—to working together, offering a new way to convene to solve problems, as the collaboration between the Philadelphia police and a handful of citizens proved earlier this year. And the more that technology gives government employees and citizens a way to rapidly and effectively solve problems together, the less that government seems like an abstract entity.

Crawford hopes that eventually using such technologies will bring citizens and government closer together, breaking down barriers between civil servants and their constituents, and ushering in a new transparency—and collaboration—to civic engagement. The alternative, she says, is a government “retreats behind the invisibility of big walls.”