Anyone with a smartphone knows that even the coolest-looking app will go unused if it fails to meet the user's needs. The same is true for a newly launched or redesigned government website: Attractiveness and basic functionality — new fonts, formatting and navigation tools — are necessary but will fail to accomplish their purpose if they are not supported by addressing the underlying issues that can make accessing government services so cumbersome.
A focus on the needs of users that includes the re-engineering of underlying systems has the potential to make a digital city hall more responsive while also better addressing the needs of underserved populations. Done well, such an approach would constitute a new way of operating altogether, not only on the Internet but in brick-and-mortar city halls as well.
Indianapolis has embarked on such an undertaking in reengineering indy.gov, the city/county Web portal that dates back to my time as mayor in the 1990s. In building the new my.indy.gov, Indianapolis is capitalizing on new possibilities that two decades of immense technological advances have provided.
I recently spoke to Ken Clark, the chief information officer of Indianapolis and Marion County, who is leading the my.indy.gov effort. "My pitch to the mayor was, rather than reshuffle the current site, let's redo the whole thing," Clark said. "Let's talk to citizens, nonprofits, business groups and veterans' groups and see what services they need online."
As a result, Indianapolis's mortgage deduction application process was among the first manual services to be migrated to my.indy.gov. Not so long ago, the process of trying to get a deduction would have gone something like this: Review ordinance language to determine the deduction you might qualify for, download the appropriate PDF from indy.gov, fill it out and mail it in. That paper then would sit in a pile until a city/county employee could review it and, if necessary, mail back a request for additional information that might be required.
That process, according to Clark, took five to 10 business days — if all went according to plan. The new website, with its mandate for complete vertical digital integration, reduces that timeline down to as little as 20 minutes.
The site now allows a property owner to quickly search for and apply for all possible deductions relating to a land parcel, including specific ones for veterans, seniors and the blind. Smart online forms validate all information as it is entered. The composition of the forms changes as the user inputs information, omitting unnecessary fields. Through one of many real-time integrations to underlying databases, completed deduction forms are automatically entered into a system that holds property data for multiple city and county agencies.
Liz Fischer of CityBase, a consultant working on the new website's design and user experience features, noted that a major goal is that no user is ever asked for the same piece of information twice. With available data pre-filled for all appropriate fields, an authenticated user could focus on additional information the city needed for a particular process. For example, if opening up a restaurant requires approvals from 10 agencies, the applicant would be treated as a single customer rather than 10 unique ones, each starting from square one. All the work one does with one agency would carry over to the other nine, saving everyone time.
I believe there is room to make modern government websites even smarter. Residents should be able to work with chatbots, for example, to ask questions and get immediate answers and suggested services. And digitized forms and documents should be broken down into small bits that can be easily called upon by bots, allowing users to focus solely on the questions and answers that are important to them.
For now, however, the my.indy.gov model demonstrates that, by going deep into the inner workings and undertaking some serious renovation, the digital front door of a city hall can be far more than a pretty face on government. It's a concept I hope others catch on to.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.