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Become a Money-Saving Hero (Opinion)

Three ways that our newly elected executives can use technology to achieve a leaner and more responsive government.

As I wrote this column in mid-November last year, another election cycle finished in a frenzy and citizens selected a significant number of new faces at all levels of government. For the U.S., 29 new governors will take office in 2011, which also means new management teams, CIOs and citizen outreach initiatives. On the local level, that number is likely in the thousands.

Regardless of political persuasion, I think we can all agree on one thing: Everyone wants a more effective, innovative government — especially in a difficult economic environment that demands tough, budget-crunching choices and creative measures to spark economic development.  

As such, I propose three ways that our newly elected executives can use technology to achieve a leaner and more responsive government:

Reach citizens on the move. If a government is exclusively using approaches like in-person town halls, cable access programming and mailed newsletters to reach citizens, it is stuck in the 20th century.

Think about it for a minute: Where do most people go to complete banking activity — a brick-and-mortar building, an ATM or a secure website? For me, it’s the last two. Where do people purchase a plane ticket — at the airport terminal or an online portal? I never stand in line anymore (except for TSA security), as I print my boarding pass at home.

The reality is that citizens have shifted their activity from the physical to the virtual, and smart states will carefully scrutinize every process and service to see if they can convert or complement them with a Web- or phone-based interface.

Improve internal collaboration. New York City has more than 300,000 city employees. As Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith stated at a recent GovLoop discussion group GovUp, our biggest problem isn’t that we don’t know, it’s that we don’t know what we know. Governments have hundreds of stovepipes across agencies and departments, and it’s hard to help employees share information beyond the artificial barriers.

In Philadelphia, Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank was building an internal collaboration solution to solve this problem. I like to think of it as “Intranet 2.0,” “Suggestion Box 2.0” and “Cross-Department Meetings Online 2.0” all in one.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee stated that collaboration would be one of the hallmarks during his tenure should he assume office. Well, he won and GovLoop plans to help Chafee provide a platform for Rhode Island employees to “learn from existing solutions and share best practices, both externally and internally.”

Relaunch the citizen core. Last year at an event in Manor, Texas, former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck borrowed the term “cognitive surplus,” coined by Clay Shirky author of Here Comes Everybody, to call for better engagement of our “civic surplus” — the unlimited potential of our collective creativity as Americans.

Noveck indicated that government needs to “identify people who can use tech for engagement and use tech platforms for innovation. With open innovation, we have the opportunity to create all kinds of solutions to the problems we face.” To further emphasize the importance of harnessing citizen ideas and energy, she said, “When we ask Americans to get involved every four years by voting, we’re missing the boat … open innovation isn’t a ‘nice to do.’ It’s a ‘must do’ in order to strengthen our democracy.”

In other words, the solutions to our greatest challenges aren’t only generated within the walls of government buildings. Citizens that government called to serve are just as capable of devising innovative ideas — and possibly more so!

That’s why cities like Boston use an online community called Neighbors for Neighbors to foster conversations between citizens and city government, discussing current events in communities and exploring potential actions together.

Cities are also starting to use mobile apps like SeeClickFix and CitySourced to have citizens report municipal problems like potholes and graffiti. By having citizens report problems with geo-tagged, location-based information and pictures, it saves government time and money by not having to send repair trucks to nonexistent problems.

Now it’s time for cities and states to take action. Not every city is going to win the Google Fiber for Communities challenge, but every city can take steps toward being a world-class innovation center. As governmental entities fight for tax revenue, they must recruit the creative class of individuals and companies, leveraging technology and volunteer talent as an economic driver.

Again, take a moment to consider: Do citizens want to live in places where they must drive 30 minutes downtown on a Wednesday, wait in line for another 45 minutes, then drive back home just to submit their feedback on rail or roads? Do citizens want to live in locations that waste money mailing paperwork that clutter their cabinets and countertops? Do citizens want to live somewhere that puts them on hold for 20 minutes to report a graffiti problem? Probably not. 

If governments are interested in creating Gov2020, they know where to find me: on GovLoop,, where nearly 40,000 of their peers across government and around the world are learning from one another and leveraging the enormous power of the crowd.

Steve Ressler is a serial gov tech entrepreneur and investor. He has held leadership roles at companies including Callyo, GovDelivery/Granicus and GovLoop.