Digital is reshaping the way people think about how government addresses their needs, and some of the best examples of this approach can be found in small communities across the world.
The 2016 presidential election has been many things — long, loud, surprising, contentious, intense. But over the course of nearly 18 months of campaigning and with voting day still two months away, the election has become a pain point that has largely grown tiresome for many people. One reason for this campaign fatigue that may be overlooked is that this election, like the two preceding it, has been a fully digital one.
Candidates, news organizations and activists have taken full advantage of the digital platforms and channels available to them, making campaigns a ubiquitous feature of everyday life. Digital and mobile technology has become even more entrenched in society since the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, so it’s been nearly impossible for anyone to avoid any of the candidates’ digital strategies.
But there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the fact that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump released apps that have been largely derided, their campaigns’ focus on digital strategy — tweets included — indicates that those around them recognize the power of digital. That same digital power, once in the hands of the next president of the United States, can be used to erase the memory of an unending digital-focused campaign and improve the lives of citizens through policy, digital initiatives and digital strategy to bring the country’s relationship with government into the next decade.
Successes and Failures
Using digital to improve the citizen-government relationship isn’t necessarily a novel concept. Research shows that in 2015, 65 percent of the U.S. population had used the internet or an app to interact with a federal, state or local government agency. These encounters ranged from simply finding information to paying tax bills and submitting requests for services. Across the world, governments and municipalities big and small are using digital to resolve the classic gripes ordinary people have with government bureaucracy — wait times, confusion, roadblocks and, often, the feeling of being ignored by the government that should have your best interests in mind.
Digital is reshaping the way people think about how government addresses their needs, and some of the best examples of this approach can be found in small communities across the world. In the United Kingdom, for example, East Riding of Yorkshire, a county with only one town larger than 36,000 in population, has become known around Europe as a standard bearer for governmental integration of digital. East Yorkshire used customer contact data to reroute priority service requests to newly installed self-service kiosks. Placing the right kiosks in the right neighborhoods with the right capabilities opened the county council to better service requests as they were reported, with citizens finding the responsive design inviting and easy to understand. The digital transformation has also impacted the way citizens gather their information — 50 percent of the county’s website traffic now comes from mobile.
In the United States, Louisville, Kentucky has established itself as a digital leader with text message alerting systems for things as simple as trash collection and an open city data portal to allow government agencies to share information and for the citizenry to track more and more of what the government does for them — hopefully instilling a sense of responsibility for both citizens and government officials.
New York City has developed a 12-initiative playbook to lead officials toward a digital future that includes mobile optimization for widely used tools, transparency to encourage collaboration and truth, and improving general communication across the city’s government officials and the citizenry.
But there have been missteps as well, most notably on the federal or central government level. Upgrades to the U.K.’s National Health Service computer system in 2013 were ultimately abandoned after continuous problems with implementation and usability, costing taxpayers £10bn, over $16 billion U.S. The rollout of Healthcare.gov faced similar issues, with citizens being unable to reliably access the site, let alone research or enroll in a health plan.
The difficulty at the federal level is manyfold in striving toward the successes of local governments. The size of the government and its processes is a huge blocker of transformation, as it’s tasked with meeting rising demands for comprehensive services while simultaneously decreasing spending and waste. Digital solutions are becoming increasingly popular throughout various government agencies and departments, but too many are missing the mark. The disjointed nature of the federal government creates situations where citizens may be able to start a process online but may have to complete it in person at one or more government offices. Individualized data silos within agencies make data sharing difficult and slow down simple tasks, such as confirming information between various departments or government branches. Security is another looming concern that has blocked the adoption of many technologies if for no other reason than the fact that keeping information safe, yet transparent and accessible, is a hugely complex undertaking. In short, the delivery of public services simply cannot compete with private and commercial organizations, creating frustrations in citizens who are used to a higher level of functionality from their online and mobile activities.
The real issue is not that a digital system can’t be supported at the highest level of government, it’s that the digital system can’t be supported with the people themselves. As the Centric Digital blog has covered widely, a digital transformation is only as good as the people who are supporting it. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find a single group or person who is ultimately responsible for the internal digital transformations within government agencies. That has to change for the government to begin delivering the type of transformation that understandably more agile local and statewide government organizations are able to advance on much shorter time frames.
Roadmap for the Next President
So what does this mean for a potential Trump or Clinton (or Johnson or Stein) presidency? More and more, research is being funded and analysis is being carried out into the potential future of a digital government at scale. And “scale” doesn’t get much bigger than the United States Federal Government, which any potential presidential candidate could find themselves in charge of one day soon. President Barack Obama made a strong statement on behalf of the U.S. government’s role in defining digital strategy on the federal level by installing a true digital transformation structure, including a hardened strategy and the first-ever White House CDO, Jason Goldman. Goldman’s self-described objective was to “help create more meaningful online engagement between government and American citizen.” If you look closely enough at the examples of success above, it’s that exact edict that each of the “digital-first” cities have strived toward.
The daily activities of those citizens who would require the services provided by the government must be addressed. And not in the stodgy way that has defined much of the public-facing components of digital touchpoints provided at .gov websites. Try taking a look at the IRS website or the State Department’s website. Neither are particularly friendly, though their capabilities might be strong enough to reduce headaches across the various touch points they provide. But for a digital strategy to truly address the needs of the people, it will need to address the security concerns that seem to pervade, encourage open communication, and address the needs of the people in a way that actually provides value, the way only digital can.
To catch up with countries that are far more mature in their digital capabilities (rather than their infrastructure strength), such as Singapore, Germany, Norway and South Korea, the United States must improve its internal structure to support an effective digital transformation. This means establishing dedicated digital decision-makers with a focus on digitizing key public services. The next president must also have a plan for adapting systems and processes to deliver services that are structured from the outside in, putting the needs and desires of the populace before the budgetary concerns or complacency of the status quo.
The government is making strides toward expanded, more user-friendly digital services, but it’ll take some work to reach the levels of effectiveness and efficiency that the private sector possesses. Mobile and online encounters with the government should resemble digital interactions with banks, retailers and other service-oriented organizations — convenient, secure, simple and feature-rich. These solutions must also make use of the technologies that are already taking organizations into the future, including the internet of things, big data visualization and predictive analytics.
In the final months of the campaign, it would behoove the candidates to not only convey their proposed digital strategy to the public, but actually involve citizens in its creation via town hall meetings, social media Q&As and, of course, polling to improve user experiences.
The digital transformation is one of the few nonpartisan issues this campaign season. There’s little argument on either side of the aisle that better serving citizens, cutting costs and creating a more efficient government is a bad thing, so it shouldn’t be difficult for the next president to make real progress on this front.
U.S. citizens and businesses are already thinking and living digital. It’s time for the government to start doing the same.