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Reaching Out: 2nd Annual Government Experience Award Winners Embrace Citizens Where They Are

Across the country, governments at all levels are working to improve the way they reach citizens digitally. This year's first-place winners include Utah, Oakland County, Mich., and Louisville, Ky.

While citizens have always been at the heart of government work, the way they experience their governments in a digital age is in many ways a new frontier. The second annual Government Experience awards, conducted by the Center for Digital Government,* offer ample evidence that the variety, availability and quality of the citizen interaction is a front-and-center consideration among state, county and local technology leaders.

At the state level, a surprising 80 percent of those surveyed rank chatbots and Alexa-type artificial intelligence (AI) implementations among their top three experience avenues. “We knew a lot of agencies were experimenting with it, but the fact that it made the top three for so many of them was really interesting,” said Dustin Haisler, CDG chief innovation officer.

States also are digging into the citizen experience with government more deeply than ever before, focusing not just on the user interface but also on under-the-hood issues. They’re developing policies to ensure experience is not only available but effective.

“They are using their governance to look at how they select channels, to measure what they are doing, especially with the new technologies,” Haisler said. “Do we have people using these new technologies? Are we reaching the right segments of the population? It’s about fitting all these things together.”

At the county level, social media has risen to the fore. “They use it to disseminate public information, which everybody did five years ago, but then they also are using it for service requests, which is new,” Haisler said. “People can actually do things on social media — they can initiate requests, they can engage with the county in new ways.” 

Counties also are leveraging social as the venue of choice in support of emergency communications, another novel iteration. 

At the city level, it’s all about mobile, with 64 percent of respondents citing mobile apps as one of their top three engagement channels. “These are not just mobile websites but actual native apps,” Haisler said. “Mobile is not cheap, you have multiple platforms with frequent update cycles, so it was surprising to see that sheer volume of native, standalone applications.” 

2018 Innovation Awards

Maryland received an innovation awards for its Enterprise Widget Framework (EWF) API Library, which makes it easy for state agencies to deliver unified branding. “A big problem with agencies at the state level is the lack of common components and capabilities,” said CDG Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler. “Maryland is focused on connecting the dots, enabling agencies to maintain consistent branding and standards so we are all operating off the same playbook and it all feels like the same site.”

A recognized public-private partnership in Miami-Dade County brought together city officials, AT&T, Ericsson and MetroTech Net in support traffic management in the county’s Smart City Operation Center. “Normally in a partnership you have one vendor with one agency. In this case you had a very diverse group of entities all supporting improved efficiencies and improved outcomes,” Haisler said. “This approach is really interesting: They are creating an entire ecosystem. This is how agencies should go about public-private partnerships, by leveraging a diverse set of stakeholders with a broad range of skills.”

Albuqeurque was recognized this year for its 311 service requests, which leveraged Alexa in novel ways, going beyond earlier, information-only applications. “They offer the ability to actually request a service,” Haisler said. “Most of the time these voice assistants regurgitate information: What is the number for the DMV? How do I renew a hunting license? This is the first we have seen at the local level that allows people to actually request trash pickup or a graffiti cleanup.”

No stranger to an Innovation Award, Utah used Amazon’s artificial intelligence products to sift through user feedback and ferret out citizen needs. “We took all the data from our feedback database — feedback on dozens or hundreds of online services — and we applied AI to look at trends and sentiment analysis,” said Utah CTO David Fletcher. “That allows us to address specific services, things like driver’s license renewals and vehicle renewals, so that now it only takes a few seconds to do a vehicle renewal on mobile. We were able to make those changes in part based on that AI analysis.”

It all adds up to a big year for citizen experience, both in terms of the diversity of platforms available and the breadth of services on offer. Looking ahead, a current focus on breadth — expanding experience across multiple platforms — could drive a push toward some form of consolidation. 

“If you have 90,000 local government agencies and each one has 10 different channels, that gets to be a pretty big number,” Haisler said. “We are going to see them streamlining. People will query using whatever interface they prefer and it will find the relevant information for them. That’s where all of this is leading.”

Utah — First Place in the State Category

Long an active player in the effort to expand the digital citizen experience, Utah in 2018 set its sights on the emerging realm of AI and the automated assistant.

“Our goal is to try to be wherever the people are, to provide services and information beyond just the Web,” said Chief Technology Officer David Fletcher. To that end, the state has been rolling out digital assistants. “We have interactive services on Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. We have a driver’s license exam on both platforms so people getting their driver’s license can take a practice test online. We have a notary practice test on the Google Assistant, which they can use on their mobile phones or on the Google Home devices.” 

Fletcher sees the voice-friendly platforms as the next wave in citizen experience, and he envisions expanding the portfolio. “Ultimately, we want to enable many different services, but we are starting simple, with things like fishing reports on different bodies of water around the state. Then we’ll see where it goes,” he said.

The state is also looking at emerging interfaces. Last year it launched its first-ever Apple Watch application to deliver updates on bills going through the state Legislature. In pursuing this course, the device makers’ penchant for more open environments is proving helpful.

“Most of these platforms have an open API [application programming interface] environment, so we develop all our services using APIs and Web services. Then as new platforms become available we can use those existing APIs and not have a big development effort,” Fletcher said. “We want to develop our platform in a way that we can take advantage of these new opportunities, instead of just being siloed into these legacy systems. The APIs allow us flexibility moving forward.”

Oakland County, Mich. — First Place in the County Category

Oakland County, Mich., CIO and Deputy County Executive Phil Bertolini views government experience as a conversation, and he’s looking to facilitate that dialog.

Take social media, for instance. The county is deep into Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn. The effort draws over 590,000 visitors in an average month, and when they have questions, Bertolini wants to be sure they can get answers.

That means backing up the technology with a human element, a social media team whose job it is to broker connections between user needs and relevant county agencies.

“We have live people at the other end who engage, and they don’t just throw it out there and assume it’s taken care of. Our social media team will monitor that discussion and if there is no response form the department or division, they will follow up,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than initiating a conversation and then just having dead air.”

In addition to offering a timely, human response to incoming queries, the county also actively courts citizen input. Last year the IT team crowdsourced a GIS-enabled inventory of holiday lights, using citizen input to create a map of festive displays.

“It sounds trivial, but it shows us what is possible when you listen to people,” Bertolini said. “Some of these displays were generating revenue for charity, and in one case revenue went up 150 percent based on information citizens were putting out to us, and that we in turn were sharing with everyone else.”

Whatever form the citizen experience takes, it is more than likely going to unfold on a cellphone — that’s where 60 percent of the county’s digital traffic comes from. With this in mind, Bertolini has placed a special emphasis on making all county offerings phone-friendly.

This has an IT aspect: It means using responsive design, building pages with bigger buttons and implementing ease of navigation. But there’s a human element as well.

“We have 170 content managers across government and we are constantly training them: Don’t put that giant graphic on there, make it more concise, more streamlined,” Bertolini said. “Educating our people has gone a long way toward making government more accessible.”

Louisville, Ky. — First Place in the City Category

Tech leaders in Louisville decided the raise the usability bar this year, with revamps to the city’s website in both desktop and mobile versions.

Visitors to the website now are invited front and center to enter their address information, a simple step that unlocks broad functionality. “It automatically populates information like your street-sweeping date and how to contact your council member. The most important information is right there at your fingertips,” said Sharon Meador, manager for business systems in the Louisville Metro Government IT department.

A new quick-search function makes it easier to reach commonly read pages, as does a new “popular pages” tab driven by Google Analytics and updated weekly.

The mobile site got a similar facelift. With more than half the city’s public Web traffic now coming via mobile, IT Director Chris Seidt said his team sought to make information more visible. “We want those most commonly accessed pieces to be right in front of the user, rather than people having to go and hunt,” he said.

The city this year also expanded its ongoing collaboration with traffic app maker Waze, in which the city supplies data on road closures, for example, while Waze delivers valuable traffic information.

This year the city moved the program to Amazon Web Services for greater scalability, and also opened the source code in order to spur participation by other municipalities. “Now other cities can stand up their own data analysis tools and run those programs very easily,” Seidt said. “Now they can collaborate with us, and even add functionality that maybe we hadn’t thought of.”

The city has taken IT out into the physical world as well, teaming with the American Printing House for the Blind to develop smartphone-based wayfinding systems for the visually impaired. After prototyping a system in a small civic building, the city rolled out a large-scale version in its 50,000-square-foot judicial center.

“Now people are able to get audible navigation cues on their phone: 'You are 40 feet from making a left turn.' It allows for more independence for our visually impaired residents,” Seidt said. “That’s not something that the city would lead on typically, but with this partnership it was something that we could help to foster and grow.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.