Twenty-five years ago, getting information via a computer meant a trip to a university or a library to sit in front of a small green- or orange-screened device that sluggishly churned out limited amounts of data. It would have been hard back then to imagine where online access to information would lead us.
As a pioneer of e-government, which got its start in 1992, I have been privileged to help frame that journey, which has transformed online information delivery into a digital model that makes government accessible anytime, anywhere.
Digital government took root at a time when document exchanges at the click of a mouse were impossible. Delays in retrieving paper-based information from state capital offices slowed down business processes, sometimes for weeks or months. Attorneys, bankers and business owners needed a better way to interact with government.
The nascent world of online communications, powered by the now-nostalgic sound of modem-to-modem connections, offered freedom from the constraints of traditional methods government used to provide services to constituents. By 1992, NIC was already making government information accessible on the Internet, and from there digital government evolved quickly, transitioning to the first enterprisewide state government website, which launched in 1995. Those early sites ultimately led to the .gov portal platforms that still serve as e-government information hubs for millions of Americans today.
By 2000, e-commerce was becoming mainstream. With the help of private-sector digital government partners, states began implementing payment processing systems that introduced a new way to complete government transactions. Now, licenses could be renewed and taxes paid online without mailing in a paper form or visiting a government office. In 2002 — still five years before the introduction of the iPhone — NIC’s first “mobile app” allowed voting results and legislative information to be retrieved via a Palm Pilot device.
Today, the mobile phones in citizens’ pockets have computing power that supersedes that of the stationary computers once housed only in public venues, and agencies have responded with services and applications that bring government to the people 24/7.
While an anniversary milestone is a good time to reflect on all that has been accomplished, the first 25 years of digital government were only a small taste of the promise ahead. In fact, the pace of technological change in government today is far greater even than it was 25 years ago, when the industry was completely new.
The way citizens want to interact with government has undergone profound change, driven primarily by citizens themselves. For example, millennials were almost born with electronic devices in their hands. Recognizing the challenge to anticipate what new generations of highly connected citizens will want before they want it, government agencies and their digital government partners have begun investigating ways to provide citizens and businesses personalized experiences. And, they are exploring how autonomous vehicles, drones, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other disruptive technologies can achieve that goal, while also helping to create efficiencies, reduce costs and streamline interactions.
Here are some ways the technologies of tomorrow, which already are making inroads today, will improve outcomes for digital government in the years ahead:
Voice. Voice-command systems allow people to complete government tasks by conversing with a device like Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana. Voice-first has gone mainstream in 2017, with more than 30 million voice-first devices expected to be in circulation by the end of the year, according to a report from VoiceLabs. As natural language processing and speech recognition improve, it will become more commonplace for us to interact with government using our voices than by tapping a screen or a keyboard. It already is easy to envision a day where citizens will use Alexa or Cortana to complete virtually all government transactions without ever turning to the screen of a laptop or a mobile device.
Virtual reality. With its ability to provide a more realistic sense of place and scale than a picture on a screen can, virtual reality has potential to deeply engage constituents. Virtual statehouse tours are already available, and are changing field trip dynamics for classrooms across the country. Now teachers can take their students on a virtual tour of the state capitol building without ever leaving their classrooms.
Chatbots. According to research firm Gartner’s 2017 predictions, within three years, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with his or her spouse. Government agencies already are harnessing the power of chatbots to respond to customer questions around the clock. Over time, machine learning will improve further, allowing chatbots to deliver increasingly relevant responses.
Personal assistants for government. Research shows citizens are confused about which government agencies to contact to complete various tasks and have a hard time keeping track of government requirements that occur just once a year. Personal assistants for government will become citizens’ preferred method for tracking government-related deadlines and making one-click payments, whether on a mobile phone, Apple Watch or even Apple TV.
As the speed of technological change accelerates constituent expectations of anytime-anywhere access to government, agencies must challenge convention and introduce solutions that respond. It is impossible to know for certain what the next 25 years will hold for digital government. What I can predict with confidence is that the technological transformation before us — much like what we saw in 1992 — will give government limitless opportunities to be more responsive and more productive.
Harry Herington is the CEO and chairman of the board for NIC Inc.