With the buzz of a smartphone, residents of Lexington, Ky., might receive anything from updates on new construction in their neighborhoods to changes in their leaf collection schedule.
The city’s opt-in notification platform, CityGram, launched last year. Since that time nearly 75,000 text messages and emails have been sent to more than 700 residents on code enforcement, building permits, sale foreclosures and leaf collection, says Jonathan Hollinger, administrative officer senior for Lexington’s Planning, Preservation and Development Department.
Lexington’s launch of CityGram speaks to a national movement of local and state governments responding to citizens’ needs for more information in a faster and more accessible format. A recent Adobe digital government survey showed that in the last year, 95 percent of citizens interacted more with their government than they did a year ago. Out of those surveyed, 90 percent said interacting with government online saved them time and energy.
Opening the black box
Government agencies like Lexington’s planning department are offering services and information to the public outside of city buildings or without waiting on the phone, because it adds transparency, efficiency and better communication between government departments and the people they serve, Hollinger states.
“Some of the offices were sort of like a black box to the public,” he explains. “You don’t see anything happen, so you assume that nobody ever did anything about it…I think just providing that feedback even when it’s not the answer they [residents] want to hear, it makes them feel empowered.”
Lexington partnered with an organization that has made dozens of government tech initiatives possible to launch CityGram – Code for America. The nonprofit, established in 2009, connects web professionals with local governments for yearlong fellowships to increase efficiency and citizen engagement and close the gap between the private and public sector. Lexington’s team of fellows partnered with a cohort in Charlotte, N.C., to develop the notification alert platform. It’s now available in San Francisco, New York City and Austin, Texas, says Erik Schwartz, former Code for America fellow and current web developer for the city.
“We made it so that more cities could be added on over time, and they can add datasets to it over time,” Schwartz says. This is a fairly common use case for cities. There’s a bunch of data they would like citizens to subscribe to.”
Without yet introducing subscription-based data, the Miami-Dade County property appraiser’s website draws 2.5 million hits monthly and has already seen nearly 30 million visits this year for browsing on comparable home sales, homestead exemption applications and general property searches, shares Lazaro Solis, deputy property appraiser for the county. The appraiser office’s online property search recently received an award for the site’s responsive design and quick mobile access. Browsers can search for basic information about properties. Those looking for in-depth sales information can also compare results of 20 sales in a certain radius and export an Excel spreadsheet, Solis says.
Making the homestead exemption application available online represents the greatest efficiency and cost savings for Miami-Dade, Solis says. The office processes upwards of 100,000 applications annually. In previous years, to handle the workload, temporary workers were hired nearly six months out of the year. Since many citizens have moved to handling those documents online, Solis says Miami-Dade needs fewer temporary workers throughout the year.
“What was traditionally a very paper intensive manual process has now been streamlined,” Solis adds. “Lots of folks didn’t know about it, but as people started learning about it and using, we were able to adapt to the demand. Something that hasn’t been done – at least not here.”
Though many governments have taken on some form of streamlined, mobile governments, there are hundreds of others still finding it challenging to leverage the digital tools available, says Amy Larsen, market development strategist at GovDelivery, a digital communications platform that 1,000 governments are currently using for email and text messaging, learning courses and other open data programs. Providing metrics and data to government agencies helps navigate how to best use GovDelivery’s digital tools.
“There are a lot of options available today, and it can be tough for agencies to agree on the exact solution that is going to solve more problems with limited budgets. Do we redesign the website? Add a texting program? Create a self-service portal? Launch an open data platform? Enhance communication strategy?”
“Most clients we work with have very specific goals that tie back to their communications metrics,” Larsen explains.
“For instance, in Stearns County, Minn., we measured the number of crime tips submitted after we helped the county roll out a new communications strategy. By improving the way that Stearns County communicated with their audiences, the county increased the number of crime tips submitted by residents by 533 percent, and residents downloaded 143 percent more crime prevention documents than the previous year.”
Governments are charged with researching the types of information that would be useful to their constituents, which will ultimately make the investment in technological tools worthwhile, says Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.
Pate’s office has introduced an on-demand set of educational courses for high school and college students about caucuses and other political processes called Caucus 101.
Pate’s next big digital move is allowing all Iowans to register to vote online starting Jan. 1.
“The key thing is that Iowans and Americans are looking for information to be available to them when they need it, not just when we want to give it to them,” Pate shares. “It’s like a library. It would be open 8 in the morning to 7 at night. After that, you were out of luck. Today, with what we have online, there’s no limitation for government. The upside is the workload is much more manageable. We don’t have as many bodies sitting there. They don’t have to drive to find somebody to pull information from a shelf to give it to them. They’re getting it for themselves at their home, office and school.”