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Not Everyone Loves SeeClickFix

SeeClickFix markets itself as a platform to assist cities in solving their problems, but at least one government official says its practices can be counterproductive.

One way to gauge the success of a company is by how often its name appears in the media. By that measure, SeeClickFix dominates its corner of the govtech market, as its competitors’ names – PublicStuff and FixMyStreet – don’t appear quite so often. And with $1.6 million in new funding, SeeClickFix is well positioned to provide an evolving and powerful resource to cities across the nation looking to engage more closely with its citizens. But at least one government official wishes the company would just leave her city alone.

Nancy Olson, CIO of Milwaukee, said SeeClickFix’s marketing practices are overly aggressive and irresponsible. Olson’s objection is the company’s practice of publishing pages on its website for cities that aren’t customers. On those pages, citizens can talk about their community and post problems. This is problematic, Olson said, because it creates an expectation that the problems posted will be fixed by the city, when in fact Milwaukee is not a customer of SeeClickFix and does not monitor the problems posted there. Olson’s office asked SeeClickFix to remove Milwaukee from the website, but SeeClickFix refused.

The city doesn’t necessarily have the resources to monitor anything but its own 311 system, but people are bound to get upset when problems posted to SeeClickFix aren’t addressed by the city, Olson said – the company is twisting the city's arm to use its platform.

“If you type in, the first thing under their banner says, in big bold letters, ‘Report neighborhood issues and see them get fixed,’” Olson said. “Who do you think is fixing potholes in the city of Milwaukee?”

If it was just one company doing this, it might not be as big of a problem, Olson said, but there are too many new companies popping up for the city to keep track of them all. And as government open data sets are adopted by entrepreneurs and startups, the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and government become further confused. Olson said she supports entrepreneurs, but that they need to be responsible with how they represent their services and their relationship with government.

SeeClickFix Director of Marketing Tucker Severson said this is a problem the company encounters frequently.

“It’s really a misunderstanding of how the SeeClickFix platform works,” said Severson. “SeeClickFix was founded as a citizen network to publicly document concerns in their neighborhood. In some ways, it’s analogous to hosting something on any social media site. It’s owned by the citizen. It’s for them to express their concerns in a more structured and detailed way.”

SeeClickFix provides governments with free tools, including an open API, to monitor SeeClickFix issues and in many cases, Severson said, the company will even integrate their platform into a city’s Open 311 system for free.

“Once they understand how it works and why it was set up that way, they, for the most part, understand,” he said. “And we’ll work with them whether they’re paying us or not, and we’ll work with them to get that information, because our goal is to get these problems resolved, whether it’s through our systems or not.”

Part of the dynamic, said Severson, is that the way people communicate and use technology is changing. 

“The reason we hear concern from governments is their feeling that, 'Citizens should only communicate with us through our approved channels. They should just call us.’ Our feeling from day one on this is that it’s about giving citizens more constructive and rich ways to communicate publicly,” he said. “Whether that’s with one another or whether it’s directly with the government. Of course it’s a lot more valuable when the government partakes in the conversation, but it’s impossible for us to turn that off.”

Milwaukee’s take on the service may be conservative, but conservative is better than a government biting off more than it can chew, as Raleigh, N.C., did. The News & Observer reported in January that Raleigh, which contracts with SeeClickFix, tallied more than 2,000 unresolved issues on the platform, some dating back to 2013. As of July, the city is still using SeeClickFix, but evidently watching the site more closely, having now reduced the number of unresolved issues to 98.

Many longtime SeeClickFix customers, like Albuquerque, N.M., are happy with the platform. Peter Ambs, Albuquerque’s CIO, said the city has been using SeeClickFix for several years and is now updating its CRM to integrate more closely with the platform.

“We entered into an agreement with them and they developed our mobile app, and we licensed their software and we don’t have any major problems with them,” he said, adding that integration with a city’s processes is not necessarily a trivial problem. 

“The integration that needs to occur with SeeClickFix and your back-end work order management systems and your CRM application, those type of tracking tools, all that’s got to be in place to have a seamless end-to-end process," he said, "because if you enter in a pothole or graffiti report, then where does it go? How does it get acted upon? What is the feedback loop to the constituent?”

Albuquerque was never pressured into a relationship with SeeClickFix, Ambs said, but he understood why a CIO might object to the company's marketing practices.

“It’s almost unethical, I would think," said Ambs.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.