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Public Agencies Have More Work to Do On Becoming Digital, Report Says

Salesforce's 2017 Connected Citizen Report found a majority of residents have had better experiences dealing with private enterprise than with government agencies.

State and local governments, like their federal counterparts, need to do an even better job of using digital technologies — email, social networks, smartphone apps and websites — to connect with their residents, a new report reveals.

The 2017 Connected Citizen Report, which was commissioned by San Francisco-based cloud computing company Salesforce and released on Thursday, March 30, found that nearly 68 percent of people surveyed said they had better experiences dealing with private enterprise than with government agencies.

Private businesses, respondents told surveyer Harris Poll, resolved issues more quickly, seemed to care more about them as customers and made it easier to communicate via text message, email and through social media.

“That kind of jumped out at me," said Dave Rey, Salesforce executive vice president for the North American public sector. “You can have an on-demand car when you need it and yet when you deal with the government in certain areas … it’s still very challenging.”

Specific areas where there was room for improvement included trash pickup, where just more than 40 percent of millennials, Generation Xers and baby boomers said their local governments used digital technologies to provide service.

Scoring lowest were the areas of applying or submitting construction or business permits, where just 21 percent of people said their governments used technology to provide those services.

Residents also gave their local governments low marks in making digital technology available to report public safety issues. Nearly half, or 46 percent overall said they were able to digitally report safety concerns like downed power lines or sinkholes. But only 28 percent said they could report a drunken driver the same way.

Progress is being made, Rey said, citing the example of Elgin, Ill., a city of slightly more than 100,000 residents, which offers a free Elgin 311 app that lets residents make service requests, scrutinize public safety issues and ask questions.

That, he said, is exactly what local and state agencies must do in a time when private enterprise frequently drives the pace of change.

Rey said the main reason why agencies lag behind their private counterparts is that government at all levels remains shackled to legacy systems, which can account for 70 to 80 percent of IT dollars.

He called this a “digital dilemma.”

“The 9-to-5 piece really isn’t working in today’s world,” Rey said, noting that for millennials, defined as people ages 18-34; and Generation Xers, people ages 35-54, governments “aren’t delivering the way they expected they would in their daily lives.” Baby boomers were classified as people ages 55 and older.

Jesse Berst, founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council, a Virginia-based advisory network of companies, told Government Technology that most cities are aware of the need to provide digital services if they want to be competitive with their peers.

But, he said, they'll need to focus on integrating and bringing all departments along as they move from legacy systems to enterprise architecture and connecting government to populace.

“Today’s people, especially the millennials, want and expect to be living in a connected city. They’re not going to move someplace where they have to go back to the last century,” Berst said.

Another number Rey told Government Technology he hoped would be higher came in the area of research. Just more than half of the 2,057 people surveyed, or 55 percent, said they’d support governments using taxpayer money to research forward-looking technologies — assuming it was for services they’d find helpful.

Asked to specify what sorts of tech they’d like to see local governments invest in, respondent numbers dropped off even further. Just 39 percent overall supported investment in technology that would let governments use vehicle sensors to monitor traffic patterns and fight gridlock.

Only 30 percent overall were in favor of investing in tech that would identify open parking spots. And just 17 percent favored trash can sensors that would allow governments to schedule pickups only when cans are full.

Rey said he thinks there’s a “knowledge gap,” exacerbated because government interaction really has been simplified by the advent of technology.

“People don’t really, I think, truly understand how they connect together these technologies,” he said.

Both men identified a generation gap they said could have accounted for areas of questioning where millennials or baby boomers responded particularly enthusiastically but were far apart when compared.

That included the issue of whether or not respondents would be willing to give government access to their personal data, including their locations and social media postings, in order to increase the quality of government services like public transportation and construction announcements.

The consensus was “No,” with 68 percent disagreeing — but generationally, the numbers varied.

Majorities in all three categories still disagreed, but millennials were more pliant, with just 59 percent against, compared to 63 percent of Generation Xers and 78 percent of baby boomers.

The biggest reason, 70 percent of all those surveyed said, was that they simply didn’t want to give the government access to their personal data — but 64 percent said they didn’t trust the government with their personal data. More than half, or 51 percent, said they didn’t think having access to their personal data would improve the quality of government services.

Elsewhere, 20 percentage points divided millennials and baby boomers on whether they had local government access via digital channels like apps, websites and email to schedule local hospital visits and appointments. Just 19 percent of baby boomers said yes, but 39 percent of millennials agreed.

On the issue of remotely participating in local town hall events like budget meetings, 15 percentage points separated baby boomers and millennials. Asked whether local governments offered access through digital channels like apps, websites and social networks, just 12 percent of baby boomers said yes. That number jumped to 27 percent of millennials. Overall, 19 percent of respondents said yes.

That, Berst said, is unfortunate.

“It’s a bit of a perverse situation,” he said, “in that it’s really the baby boomers who typically have greater need and use for it. And it’s often harder for them to take advantage of it."

Theo Douglas is news editor for Government Technology. He was previously assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news.