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It is 2013 and do you know what your digital presence is up to? More important, just what does a “digital presence” mean? Is citizen engagement via digital media simply a passing phase? Is this new way simply a lazy way of citizens staying involved and “in the loop?” Will interest in “Liking” your municipality fade away as Facebook use declines? Is digital media really accomplishing anything useful? Let’s consider these questions here.
Digital presence is who we are on the web. For government, digital presence is how the public interacts with us via the Internet. While the tools themselves may come and go, citizen expectations for government’s digital presence will only continue to rise. Digital media are the tools (websites, apps, etc.) that establish digital presence. The public wants to see digital media used to facilitate more effective business interactions and communication with government.
Digital media is a transformative technology that is dramatically changing the face of government. In large part due to citizen expectations, we’re adapting to major changes in how we interact with and serve our citizens. And service is what government is all about. This is an exciting time to be in local government. Harnessing the power of digital media has the potential to re-engage citizens in their communities. So, let’s consider a few questions on our evolving digital media path:
What Do We Need?
While we can debate the details of this question, we can no longer debate the fundamental elements of the 21st century world. For one thing, governments must maintain a minimum level of digital media fluency. This means using appropriate digital platforms to build more open, transparent, participative local governments that are fundamentally collaborative. It also means facilitating appropriate information sharing – albeit, we’re not advocating the widespread sharing of extremely sensitive data. We are instead suggesting that real-time citizen engagement can be facilitated through use of digital media and access to information. But digital media fluency necessitates that today’s public servants develop at least a working knowledge of the myriad technologies including digital media and cloud computing platforms. Determining what are basic applications and their potential pitfalls remains elusive. Yet this is a critically important task for public managers and their staff. Further, public sector employees must be sure that all levels of appointed and elected officials and staff have a comprehensive awareness of the implications of digital media as a tool for transparency in government and citizen engagement. Ultimately, this will enable to them to develop effective standards and protocols for digital media use by the public sector.
Why Are We Doing This?
In the years Pew Research Center has been tracking Internet use in the United States, adult Internet use has grown from 14 percent in 1995 to 85 percent in 2013. It is a misconception that only a small segment of the populace is wired. Adult use of the Internet is ubiquitous and cuts across age barriers and socio-economic lines; it isn’t just your affluent teenager who is actively online. Interestingly, older adults are among the fastest growing group of new Internet users. As a historically engaged group of citizens, digital media adds one more tool for communication and action with our seniors. Further, while nearly 1 billion people had mobile broadband subscriptions in 2011, it is expected to grow to more than 5 billion globally by 2016. The world is wired in a way never before seen in terms of instantaneous awareness. One of digital media’s revolutionary abilities is its capacity to allow governments to interact with large numbers of citizens in real time in a manner that can be organized and analyzed at a later date.
What Should Government Digital Media Accomplish?
Today, few of us use desktop computers. Most use a mobile device. In fact, 46 percent of American adults were using smartphones to access the Internet by 2012. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of Internet users, survey respondents felt the following were important or very important for a government to do:
Clearly, digital media use by citizens seeking interaction with their public agencies is becoming more focused. As noted above, the desire for communication and the ability to complete tasks online is fairly strong. Innovation is fundamental to government operations and embracing change must continue with our approach to digital media. We can tweet safety alerts, track trends on policy initiatives on Twitter and use smartphone apps to report potholes in streets or ethical missteps. We can use apps to engage citizens in volunteering and track their volunteer work efficiently. We can conveniently conduct the business of government online. (Has anyone been to an actual post office lately?) We go online to renew our licenses and library books and to register our vehicles. Our limitations are only bound by our imaginations and our willingness to embrace change.
As citizens demand digital media in government, so are local governments responding. A study of public managers identified the following key reasons for digital media use by local government. (Note the hopeful 17 percent who seek to generate revenue through their digital media.)
What Are We Getting?
Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America is connecting techies with local governments for the purpose of quickly adapting technology to resolve local problems. One example is a smartphone app that enables residents in Honolulu to adopt a tsunami siren to check that its batteries are still in place. For the city of Boston, Code for America has developed an app that allows residents to adopt a fire hydrant to shovel out after heavy winter snowstorms. Code for America’s sponsored apps have gone viral in nine cities. These apps are a form of citizen engagement that spreads from citizen to citizen in a push for the common good.
E-people is another example of technological innovation in government. This South Korean online service was developed to address citizen complaints and problems and to promote policy discussions. In 2012 more than 1.2 million complaints were filed, resulting in more than 100,000 civil proposals and 1,007 policy discussions. According to the website, satisfaction rates are hovering around 65 percent. (Note: If you visit the e-people webpage, English speakers will need to click on the “English” icon at the top of the page.)
But what can public sector employees expect to get out of these technology trends? Digital media has the potential to break down silos and build collaborations that cross departments, agencies, and levels of government. Digital media eliminates barriers of time and distance. It can improve service delivery through increased access and processing speed. Data can be readily shared and transformed into usable information via accessible central repositories. Access to data across agencies can facilitate small, but useful change. In our previous example, the app for adopting fire hydrants during the winter connects IT, public works and public safety. All three departments benefit from citizen volunteers who are taking care of snow removal at no cost. Is this a policy change or simply a movement back toward a more engaged citizenry?
Local governments now have the potential to evaluate citizen priorities and satisfaction rates via web-based surveys or trending tweets. Citizens can participate in council meetings via their smart phones, tweeting hot information, questions, or even pictures to validate their concerns of say, crumbling infrastructure. It is also important to consider that digital media is allowing the public sector to build networks – among its own employees, among its citizens, among its contractors – all to better facilitate the business of government in a more sustainable and budget friendly manner.
Digital media has the potential to enable your government to be the government that connects with its people. Help your government get it right. The blueprint for digital media use in government is still evolving and there is no one-size-fits-all model. Therefore, it is important to chart your own path as you reach to improve community outcomes with lean budgets. One thing we do know? Accessibility to government seems to be translating into new ways of delivering on public goods. So for all of you public managers who must effectively adapt to this new paradigm and improve governance, be sure to….
Hopefully we’ve answered the questions we posed at the beginning of this article. Public managers do know what’s going on with their digital media and they’re seeking ways to use these new tools to successfully meet the changing needs of a wired community. While specific digital media tools may ebb and flow, demand for access to information and rapid citizen participation is only going to strengthen. Staying informed is important and two good sources are: Digital & Local Government News & Research and Insight & Engagement: State & Local Government on the Web. It isn’t laziness that drives citizen demand for digital media- it is just the opposite. The ability to access information and conduct activities digitally whenever possible is simply more efficient in today’s world. Will we need to worry about losing that personal touch with our public servants? Maybe, but that’s a question for another column.
Authors: Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Assistant Director, Pace University Office of Multicultural Affairs, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University; Email Contact: [email protected]