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E-Government, Access and Legitimacy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
August 17, 2019

Potholes, abandoned vehicles, overflowing trash cans in the park: all signs that government is failing—at least that what it looks like to everyday users of public facilities.

Oftentimes the condition of public facilities informs people’s opinions about how effective their government is, which further informs their sense of that institution’s legitimacy. And when a person takes the time to complain about an issue, whether they get a response can compound or assuage that person’s grievance. But in an era of networked governance when more and more public services are delegated to non-government entities, the network itself can become an impediment to responsiveness.

Because we also live in an era of networked telecommunications, and where nearly all our end-users possess a mobile device, there are technologies that can help governments close that gap.  In fact, mobile applications and mobile-friendly web portals have become an increasingly easy way to make government more accessible. 

Our Connected, Mobile World

Mobile devices present opportunities for people to access information, but it’s important to think of these devices as opportunities for interaction between government and end-users.  E-government isn’t about providing static informational documents, but about creating input systems to inform government processes and output systems to relate updates or other information directly back to respondents.

In Santa Cruz County, CA, the Information Technology Department developed a platform for delivering government services via a mobile device. My Santa Cruz County began as a pothole-reporting application that allowed users to take a geolocated picture of the offending infrastructure and immediately upload it to the Road Crew queue. Development was fraught, though, as departments resisted what they considered to be new workflow inputs and liabilities.

Five years later they’ve had over 4000 citizen-reported issues ranging from vegetation management to illegal marijuana grows. That success led to a host of government functions being available.  Now people can pay property taxes, register to vote, order copies of vital records, report graffiti and abandoned vehicles and check the status of a building permit wherever there’s an internet connection. Santa Cruz County now intends to make all public-facing government functions accessible through their application.

The City of Boston encountered a similar resistance-to-adoption cycle with their Citizen Connect app.  Staff acceptance, budgets and adoption by end-users were all constraints on their success, but after successful implementation of a limited platform other departments were able to see the potential in the technology.  Now they have features that allow city workers to document their inspections within the same application that allows residents to file complaints.

People want an easy way to connect with government and governments have a rare, new opportunity to connect with a wider range of stakeholders.  The ubiquity of these technology platforms means that under-represented constituencies can now access all the features of City Hall through these mobile devices, which surpass computer ownership in both black and Hispanic communities.  In fact one study of the digital divide showed that black and Hispanic people are more likely to seek information about government services on their mobile device than white people, demonstrating  the need for government to connect with people through mobile applications.

The challenge, then, is to decide where to start.  Successful organizations have acknowledged the need to start small and to build scalability into whatever system they adopt.  The pothole app as it was originally envisioned in Santa Cruz County, for example, was designed to grow immediately into a general-issue reporting app, and since development was in-house new features could be added as needed.  But not every jurisdiction has the resources to develop a bespoke product, and for them there are several off-the-shelf products for services ranging from land-use permitting to reporting infrastructure maintenance issues.

It’s important to engage stakeholders early in the development process, and to make sure that your stakeholder is willing to advocate. Having a department ask for and actively engage in the procurement process will result in a more useful application, which is critical for success of the overall platform. Internal process improvement should also have a central role.  If, for example, a user’s pothole report is never acknowledged or acted upon then that person will stop engaging with the whole platform.

Real, Legitimate Government Interaction

The goal should be to create something that legitimately connects people with government.

Some public processes are initiated to satisfy state or federal requirements, while others aren’t designed to effectively influence decision-making. Such, “Empty participation rituals,” actually diminish trust in government.

Useful government applications must put the user experience at the forefront of development.  People want to know that their contact has been acknowledged and they want follow-up to a complaint.  Mobile applications must seamlessly integrate into normal government workflow systems and have regular oversight to ensure that responses occur in a timely manner. 

The benefits of e-government generally arrogate to the user, but governments need to create robust interactive systems to foster trust in the reliability of their service delivery, which itself is the cornerstone of legitimacy.  Mobile applications, then, should be viewed as a new opportunity to provide better service, rather than another burden.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors.  He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at [email protected].


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