When government doesn’t deliver the same level of digital services citizens have come to expect from their private-sector interactions, they lose an opportunity to build trust in their communities.
The coronavirus crisis has challenged local governments to deliver better services through new platforms and offerings. Now, it is offering local governments an opportunity to build trust in their communities.
For years, Pew Research has documented Americans’ declining trust in the federal government. According to a recent Economist survey, only two in five Americans give the federal government excellent or good marks on their handling of the coronavirus. But 55 percent say their state and local governments are doing a good job. A 2019 Gallup poll found that three-quarters of Americans trust their local governments, while less than half trust the executive or legislative branch.
In 2020 and beyond, local governments have a unique opportunity to improve public trust and re-engage constituents with a smart digital transformation plan.
At its core, distrust is the result of frustration. In our digital world, American citizens are used to the easy, quick and convenient digital services that the private sector offers. They expect the same efficiency and quality of service from the public sector. When the public sector doesn’t deliver, citizens wonder why and start to question whether their governments have their best interests at heart.
That distrust can be made worse by the sense of urgency many people have when interacting with their local governments. We use private-sector digital services like Amazon, Facebook and Shopify at our leisure; but more often than not, we turn to our governments to solve pressing problems in our lives. Whether it’s getting a business license on time, resolving an urgent tax issue or reporting for jury duty, citizens interact with their governments in high-stress situations. Under these circumstances, any failure on the part of local government to meet citizens’ expectations can hurt trust.
One of the biggest and most enduring stumbling blocks to an efficient and convenient government is an over-reliance on paper processing. Paper processing is bureaucratically cumbersome, prone to errors and overly time-consuming. If what citizens want is a government that can deliver easy, quick and convenient services, then a digital transformation remains the best way to meet citizen expectations and improve trust.
But digital transformation is about more than just digitizing paper processes. A full transformation won’t just bring local government online; it will also make government more intuitive, transparent and consistent. That’s because citizens don’t want a digital government for its own sake; they want a digital government that works for them.
The domain of tax revenue collection provides an excellent case in point. Taxes are notoriously complex and difficult for ordinary citizens. Local governments can certainly make their own revenue collection processes more efficient by digitizing and automating them. But if that kind of digital transformation only affects the back office, it won’t do enough to build trust. Governments will also have to communicate with and engage citizens using intuitive tools and apps that make it easier for taxpayers to understand and meet their tax obligations.
The importance of citizen engagement and communication cannot be overstated. An Accenture survey from last year found that almost one-third of citizens aren’t aware of their governments' digital offerings. The same survey found that 56 percent of respondents would trust their governments more if they received clearer communication about how their jurisdicitions’ digital transformation efforts were designed to improve their lives.
Citizens trust governments that are transparent, engaging and citizen-oriented in their digital transformation efforts. By delivering intuitive digital experiences that are tailored to citizens’ needs, governments can rebuild trust all while providing more efficient and streamlined services. It’s a win-win for both local governments and the people they serve. As we enter the next stage of COVID recovery, citizens will rely on their local governments more than ever before. Now is the optimal time for the full digital transformation that citizens want, need and expect.
Louis Schiavone is president of Avenu.
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