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Beyond the Web: Inaugural Government Experience Awards Take a Holistic View of the Customer

Customer experience takes center stage in new program honoring governments with the broadest possible definition of what it means to be digital. Utah, Oakland County, Mich., and Denver, Colo., honored.

The game has changed, and the measure of digital government services are no longer quantifiable in terms of how accessible or well-designed a website is. For many years, the Center for Digital Government* (CDG) used websites as a measure of digital citizen service delivery for state, regional and local governments across the United States. But as with technology itself, what worked yesterday may not work today.

For the last 20 years, CDG celebrated the successes of governments big and small through the annual Best of the Web and Digital Government Achievement awards. But the time has come to pivot to a new way of looking at good government — a more holistic way. This year, the Government Experience Awards take over, putting an end to a decades-long legacy. 

A presence on the Web no longer represents everything an organization is doing to interact with its constituency, explained CDG Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler. The advent of voice technology, mobile applications and third-party partnerships have changed how digital achievement must be measured.

 2017 Innovation Awards

Utah received an Innovation Award for making its Web content available through Google Now, which predicts searches, and the use of personal digital assistant Amazon Alexa. The cutting-edge approach means constituents have more ways to connect with their government than ever before.

San Diego County’s Digital Rights Management initiative also received special recognition for taking a hard look at what CDG Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler called an increasingly gray area. Though the tool is not public-facing, Haisler said it sets the stage for more responsible and appropriate data use within county government.   

In Louisville, Ky., the If This Then That (IFTTT) tool takes another approach to putting citizens in touch with valuable data sets. The government-enabled third-party tool allows government data alerts to make better use of data sets, rather than sorting through a large open data clearinghouse. “It actually allows citizens to customize their own consumption of data through a third party. They beauty of it is that Louisville didn’t build If This Then That, they are leveraging a third party,” Haisler said. 

“So, 20 years later, the Web is ubiquitous and so are websites. Every government agency has a website, but the very nature of how we interact with government and with companies has changed,” Haisler said. “We don’t go to a website anymore; in fact, most of us don’t engage in the same ways that we used to. We use new devices, we use new services, we go through third parties, we’ll go and order something from our Amazon Echoes, a variety of other things."

What we are left with is what Haisler calls a “look under the hood” of digital governments around the nation, past their public-facing portals and deep into their processes and governance. 

“Now for the first time, we will be able to start tracking that and benchmarking. It really moves us to where we are today, a society where experiences are evolving rapidly, so is technology, and we want agencies to focus always on what that end-user experience should be versus what the height of technology is at that moment in time or what the hyped-up channel is at that moment in time,” he explained.

The end goal of the pivotal change is to change the way government thinks about its services. Like the Best of the Web before it, this iteration will serve as a way for organizations to share best practices and be recognized for their connections with constituents.

In addition to the substantial application process, Haisler said the each applicant had to dig for answers to questions they have likely never had to answer before.

“We really want to change the way we develop, plan and deploy these projects digitally, and so part of that is to retrain people on how they think about user experience and where it fits in the process,” he said.

To bolster this effort, a comprehensive workshop later this month will put officials from all over the United States in the room with the year’s winners to discuss what designing for users looks like on the state, regional and local scale. 

Utah — First Place in the State Category

When it comes to the digital experience in Utah, it is markedly more than a superficial step in a larger process. Where the state stands out is in its attention to detail and commitment to putting its entire technological toolbox to work for its citizens. 

It’s “not just a fresh coat of paint,” Haisler explained. “They don’t treat it like that, they treat it like it’s part of them, like a living part of the government and they keep it up to date and accessible and they do things that are above and beyond what I would consider the norm is in government.”

From exploring the potential of in-home assistant tools, like the Amazon Alexa, or the more than 1,300 services offered through state portals, Utah excels in looking ahead and keeping technology current and functional on a limited budget. 

“You can tell that experience is engrained into the processes in the state of Utah, whether it’s making a decision about how to revamp their state portal or just a monthly experience council that they run, you can tell it’s just a part of how they do business now,” he explained.

In keeping with their forward-thinking way of doing business, Haisler said the state is the first government organization to make its content accessible through Google Now, the predictive search feature.

For state Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Dave Fletcher, the move away from merely benchmarking websites and accessibility with Best of the Web mirrors what he says his state has been pushing for for quite some time — a more holistic view of digital government.

The willingness to pursue more intelligent and efficient government is one mission Fletcher said his team is very invested in. Despite the obvious challenges faced by government everywhere, Fletcher said his state must contend with the nation’s youngest population and the educational costs that come with that, which means a smaller tech budget with all the same expectations.

“Our agencies are interested in delivering value to citizens and we have to rely on a shrinking workforce to do more because we are sort of pressured into that.”

While some might find the situation frustrating, Fletcher sees it as the motivation he and his staff need to be more resourceful and creative with the tools they deploy. “Reducing budgets and still trying to provide a high level of service has compelled us to look at more digital channels to meet those needs,” Fletcher said.

Ideas like upping their Amazon Alexa game tie back to the overall culture of the state and its growing startup scene, aptly called “Silicon Slopes.” That innovative spark and coordination throughout the organization help to ensure that new ideas are explored for potential value.  

“I think it’s something that sort of ties to our culture a little bit,” Fletcher said. “We are not just willing, but excited to try out new technologies when they become available.”

The Digital Experience Coordination Council is one way Fletcher's team stays on top of what is working and what needs to be improved. The council, in an ideal world, meets monthly, though Fletcher said that is not always possible.

“We don’t want to do stuff just to do it, we really want to see traction. We try to measure everything that makes sense to measure,” he said.

Oakland County, Michigan — First Place in the County Category

A good digital experience comes from more than just access to services through a variety of channels. It roots back to an integrated governance process that gives the entire technological structure its strength.

In Michigan’s Oakland County, this sort of governance is the basis for everything else that happens around technology. From the expected to the unexpected, Haisler said the regional government has its processes down to a science.    

“Their whole focus on governance was a big thing that stood out, but Oakland County has really taken it a step further in helping the experience of government in other agencies,” Haisler explained. “They set up all kinds of stuff that is focused on improving other governmental agency experiences, like their gov-to-gov marketplace.”

In addition to tight integration from the ground up, county CIO Phil Bertolini said the county also makes it a priority to empower smaller local government organizations around it. 

“Our footprint is wide, but what makes us different is not just the fact that we provide shared technology, but that we believe in the fact that big governments should help smaller governments,” the CIO said. “There is a need to leverage technology dollars today; technologies can be very expensive, the investments can be very large. If we can leverage those dollars across more entities, it’s a huge benefit to everyone involved.”

Where it comes to his organization’s strategy, the CIO said it isn’t about trying to cram technology into places it doesn’t belong, but re-engineering the business and tailoring tech where it will work best for taxpayers and end users.

“We don’t look at just trying to wrap technology around processes. We are always looking at how to reengineer the business,” he said. “When you think about the recession we went through in the Detroit area, we went through the worst recession in the entire nation.”

The recession forced Oakland County to rethink how it operated, Bertolini said. The loss of roughly one-quarter of the property tax revenue base required the county to downsize staff by some 200 bodies. Rather than layoffs, Bertolini said they downsized through attrition and have been careful not to swell to pre-recession size.

And technology has helped to fill the gaps left by the recession, in finding more efficient and effective ways to serve their constituency. 

“It is about the people and what I am proud of is that we have been able to build a culture and cultivate and nurture our culture where technology is looked at as strategic to the overall value of the organization,” Bertolini said. “We invest quite a bit in our infrastructure, in our technology and in our technology capabilities, but they are always in support of the people.”

One strategy employed by the CIO is embedding business analysts throughout other county departments and divisions to offer better insights into what technology can do to solve their business issues.

“A lot of people say innovation is organic, it just happens. Quite honestly, we plan for innovation,” he said. “We have a very strong governance structure on how we manage our technology organization. We involve all of the people from the business units that are necessary to be involved … they prioritize the projects that they need to do their business.”

City and County of Denver, Colorado — First Place in the City Category

From the use of mobile tools to connect to their constituents, to the weekly customer experience meetings with key staff, Denver “really looked well beyond the website,” Haisler said.

The jurisdiction’s PocketGov application allows citizens to customize their interaction with their local government. All of these efforts are meant to bridge the gap between the county/city government and the constituents it serves, said CIO Scott Cardenas.

“We’re always looking for ways to make it easier for our customers to engage with the city. Our focus on investing in modern, cloud-based platforms that are easy to manage, navigate, and use makes city services more accessible to everyone we do business with and allows us to meet people where they are – on the go,” he explained via email.

While cities like Boston, New York, Seattle and San Francisco are no strangers to having their efforts recognized when it comes to technology and engagement, Denver proves that innovation is not tied to a coastline and engaged tech community. 

“You don’t have to be a goliath jurisdiction in order to really do well and focus on success. You can do it in a simple way,” Haisler said. “Denver is a great example of looking beyond their website and designing new experiences that were built around their users versus trying to just come up with what they think people will be interested in doing and seeing and learning about.”

Effective tools and a good government experience all tie back to what Cardenas calls “a culture of teamwork, empowerment and innovation” within the Technology Services department.

“Technology Services prides itself on positioning Denver to be at the forefront of innovative government technology. Here we strive to ensure easy access — anytime, anywhere — for our customers, while developing progressive, user-friendly solutions for the future,” he said.

Though the work done to this point signals clear leadership in rethinking how government can engage with citizens, Cardenas said the work will continue to the end of 2017, with the plans to move more of the city’s enterprise applications to the cloud. The move will make way for better services and the ability to lend more focus to customer service, rather than the standards “keep-the-light-on-activities.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company. This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2017, to include an interview with Denver CIO Scott Cardenas.