Make America Innovate Again – Digital Transformation, Citizen Participation, and Government Efficiency
As a general rule, we hold our governments to a higher standard than that which we hold private businesses and corporations to. Private sector businesses are expected to only look out for themselves, but the government is meant to look out for us. Why is it then that we’ve reversed the roles, castigating businesses for not showing involvement but accepting the fact that it seems that governments aren’t at all interesting in engaging their citizens?
Is there anything more anxiety-inducing or soul-crushing than visiting the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles)? Endless lines, inconvenient hours of operation, and a technical workflow leftover from the Eisenhower era all add up to a decidedly uninviting experience. The only thing more unpleasant might be dealing with a local police department. Or the IRS. Or, for that matter, any government body at the local, state or national level.
General wisdom dictates that if any private sector company had such a dysfunctional relationship with its customers, it would “go under” rather quickly. So what do successful businesses do that their public sector brethren can’t seem to? They adapt to the changing digital zeitgeist of their clientele and readily embrace strategic innovation management to serve their patrons’ needs. By increasing citizen participation in contributing feedback for public services, governments departments stand a better chance of attaining this kind of productive adaptivity- and potentially unlock groundbreaking ideas in the process. Public sector innovation is, therefore, no longer something that government bodies can afford to ignore.
Mind the Gap: Where Is Government Failing Digitally?
Today, digital tech is crucial in bringing companies closer to their customers. Special offers are promoted via mobile push notifications. Crowdsourcing software polls the client community for new product concepts. Technical struggles are intelligently identified via machine learning and preemptively flagged for customer support.
Companies have caught on quickly that digital connectivity = easier connectivity. With that closer relationship comes the sense that a customer’s voice is being heard, which in turn fosters greater brand trust. It doesn’t take an enormous leap of logic to theorize that stagnating voter participation and low civic engagement might be the results of a technologically underachieving government sector.
Surveys consistently find that public servants are out of step with the private sector in terms of access to and utilization of the latest IoT trends. Not only does the US government fall short of domestic businesses, but per some criteria it trails behind the governments of less developed overseas countries. Case in point, two post-soviet Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia, lead the world in providing public WiFi access to their citizens. The country that developed this technology in its private telecommunications sector, the United States, is shockingly no longer ranked in the top 20.
Myriad explanations could be offered for the shortcomings that stifle public sector innovation. Employees at all levels of government must cut through significant bureaucratic red tape before implementing new, cutting-edge technologies. Security regulations are often tighter in government entities, which curbs the adoption of open-source software. But the most culpable reason lies in the mantra that an organization is defined by the makeup of its staff. And apparently working for the government isn’t exactly a developer’s fantasy.
Where Have All the Techies Gone?
It’s hard to shed a reputation that’s firmly entrenched, and as far as tech-sexiness is concerned no one needs a makeover more than Uncle Sam. The number of young and tech-savvy professionals that choose to enter the public sector has gradually slipped in the past 50 years. A miniscule 2.4% of engineering students list government agencies as their workplace destinations of choice post-graduation. Only 7% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30, compared to an estimated 25% in the private sector.
The Obama administration made some strides in stepping into the digital era, including the establishment of the United States Digital Service and the hiring of a 40-year-old (a teenager, in White House math) Chief Data Scientist, straight out of Silicon Valley. But these rebranding efforts may have been undermined by culture wars between Tech and Gov, notably centered around generationally-divisive issues like data encryption and privacy versus security. The public sector’s rep among Gen Y is stymied further by byzantine hiring processes and a high and well-publicized number of layoffs in recent years. This lack of wired minds in government then leads to a less innovative approach to administering government services, which further cements the outdated image projected to young tech professionals, and thus a vicious cycle perpetuates. Its more important than ever for government agencies to focus on strategic innovation management to adapt to the changes in the digital sphere and remain relevant to
Civic Hackers, Filling the Hole Left by the Government
With governments struggling to sort out their recruiting woes, NGOs have stepped in to pick up the slack. Enter Code for America, the “civic hacking” outfit that counts Google and Microsoft among its grantors. The org accelerates the use of digital tech in the public sector by connecting tech professionals with municipal and state governments, either as paid employees, volunteers or fellowship participants. The third-party and third-sector matchmaking approach appears to be an effective strategy in mobilizing government-skeptical techies, perhaps because it involves them at a local, community level. The partnerships have resulted in a series of groundbreaking mobile apps, which streamline a range of gov-to-citizen services. Nutritional aid is distributed to needy families via an 11-minute signup, the process of expunging low-level crimes from a criminal history is dramatically simplified, and probation case managers can communicate more effectively with their clients via a unified texting service. Now imagine if all government services were that accessible, efficient, and needs-oriented.
To be fair, there are other notable bright spots where the public sector and tech innovation have converged beautifully, sans nonprofit intermediary. Community health agencies in Washington D.C. are now geocoding their patients’ health histories, employing strategic innovation management to establish targeted health awareness campaigns. Ohio has embraced the open data movement by creating a platform for local governments to post all their revenue and expenditures online and in public view of residents. Even DMVs, which were admittedly bullied a bit at the beginning of this article, seem cognizant of and determined to fix their technical shortcomings. But these digitized strategic innovation management projects in the public sphere are held up as being exceptional, when they should really be par for the course.
Increasing the tech literacy of government employees and digitizing the services they provide are two of three essential pillars needed to narrow the public and private sector innovation gap. But the aforementioned strategic innovation management ventures we’ve seen in government are successful not by virtue of merely being creative and digital, but by virtue of applying digital tech to address real public needs. And who better to articulate those needs, and their possible solutions, than the public itself? The third pillar should be relatively easy to adopt, as it’s ingrained in every member of the workforce from minute one of our first jobs.
Citizen Participation Requires Government Attentiveness
Any outfit, be it business, government or nonprofit, can get wired given the proper funds and employees. But as Richard Branson has noted, “Your education really begins on the day that you open the doors to customers.” And while we are likely a long way off from an era of electronic direct democracy in its true sense, government can take a major step toward better representing its citizens’ interests by the mere act of listening to them. A government that ignores the public’s voice, suggestions and ideas is as unlikely to succeed as a business that fails to survey its clients.
There is hope, though, for the future. Gartner Research believes that all local government organisations will generate revenue from value-added open data through data marketplaces by 2020. Bettina Tratz-Ryan, Research VP at Gartner, believes that the key will be “automating and extending the user experience to allow citizens and businesses to discover and prepare data, and to find patterns and share them within their community or organisation.”
In another Gartner report, from August 2016, Tratz-Ryan and fellow author Rick Howard outlined their vision of a process towards open citizen participation and engagement, starting at the local government level and eventually reaching a final stage, where “these marketplaces will freely exchange data up and down the tiers of government and across jurisdictional boundaries and industries”.
As the public sector takes on the necessary tasks of digital transformation and strategic innovation management, it should do so with the guiding force of collective intelligence platforms, like those offered by Qmarkets. These technologies can serve as a digital means to enhance citizen participation in government projects, and generate ideas which government bodies can then filter, develop and actualize for public benefit.