Can Maryland, Utah Help California Use Tech to Boost Engagement?

The Little Hoover Commission's March 26 hearing focused on transparency, open data and ways to make California a leader in IT service delivery.

by / March 26, 2015
California's Little Hoover Commission met with experts from Maryland and Utah on March 26 to discuss data-driven governance. CalChannel
California's Little Hoover Commission met with experts from Maryland and Utah on March 26 to discuss data-driven governance.CalChannel

It may be the home of Silicon Valley and thousands of technology gurus, but California is looking outside its borders for advice on how to use IT to better interact with citizens.

California's Little Hoover Commission (LHC) -- an independent state oversight agency -- met with experts from Maryland and Utah on Thursday, March 26, to discuss data-driven governance and how digital services have helped those states better serve residents and bolster community trust. The commission is reviewing how technology can improve California state agency culture and operations in an effort to improve transparency and efficiency, according to Chairman Pedro Nava.

 

Bits and Bytes

The Little Hoover Commission (LHC) also heard testimony from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and Franchise Tax Board on ways they are using technology to improve service delivery and IT employee retention. Here are a few of the highlights:

>> The DMV is improving virtual service delivery through increased online transactions and mobile applications.

>> The DMV is working on a virtual waiting room system, so customers can “get in line” on their phone and not have to sit at a branch office to hold their place.

 >> LHC members are disappointed that wait times in branch offices are greater in economically distressed areas in the state and want to see technology advancements to reduce them.

>> The LHC thinks position classifications need to be updated for IT personnel so that the FTB can reduce its high employee turnover rate.

Chris Rieth, GovStat program manager with Socrata and previously a director in former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office, said California should be able to mirror the success Maryland has had with its open data portal. He advised commissioners to start small with open data initiatives and gradually build on quick wins.

Rieth noted that any program to improve transparency and citizen interaction should begin with a few key staff members, office space and the cooperation of a few key agencies. Once data sets are identified and a basic portal gets launched, then it's time to build out that citizen communications tool, which is a way to take that data and provide contextual information to citizens.

The commissioners pointed out that California has been unlucky with large-scale improvement projects, and asked Rieth for his opinion on the matter. Rieth noted that data-driven programs can evolve in a variety of ways – there’s no set model to follow, which could give California flexibility.

By keeping an open data program simple and small at the outset and taking a bottom-up approach, Rieth said he felt California could be successful, despite the population disparity between it and Maryland.
 
David Fletcher, chief technology officer of the Utah Department of Technology Services, was adamant that California should be leading the way with regard to digital government. He said that online transactions have been a huge money-saver for Utah and encouraged commissioners to promote a plan in California to take advantage of the efficiencies that could be gained with state agencies moving a lot of their interactions with the public online.

For example, in Utah, Fletcher noted that business transactions with citizens cost approximately $3 online, as opposed to roughly $17 in more traditional manners, such as face-to-face appointments. As a result, he thinks California should be moving many of its transactional processes online given the technology talent that works for the state.

When asked by a commissioner why he believes California hasn’t done it yet, Fletcher was blunt. He said that the state needs to overhaul how it looks at technology initiatives and can't throw money at a project in the same way, and expect different results.

“You have to evolve,” Fletcher added. “You can’t do things once and expect it to be satisfactory. Things change. You have to start figuring out how to adopt changes early on, as opposed to 10 years after the fact.”

As an example, Fletcher cited Google Glass. Though the company is re-evaluating its wearable technology, Utah developed an app when Glass first came out to give residents access to bus schedules on it. And while Glass may not flourish on the market, Fletcher said he felt the experience gained in developing an app to meet possible demand was worth the effort.

“Government needs to be forward-thinking,” Fletcher said. “If citizens are going to have trust in government, they need to think government will look out for them.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.