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The Downside of Government Tech

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

By Mike Applegarth
February 20, 2019

Digitizing government is all the rage in public administration circles. Leading government journals are filled with articles touting digital initiatives. Titles such as, “Chat Apps to Improve Customer Experience,” or “Engage Everybody Using GIS,” urge government managers to modernize service delivery through a host of “smart city” tools.

I’m part of the crowd. A few years back, I was pleased to help make my city council’s agendas available online. Recently, we made the leap to video-streaming of council and other city meetings. My city continues to modernize through social media, online budgeting tools, digital surveys and smartphone apps.

In general, I’m supportive of these tools. I have deep respect for the public’s right to information and recognize that feedback is essential. But, whether we call it digitizing or modernizing, the urge to merge current technology with public services is not without consequence. Public officials should think carefully about the effects of technology in the public sector.

First, government does not have unlimited resources. For example, my city collects less than $9 million annually in property taxes. That may sound like a lot, but the reality is that this doesn’t even cover the cost of the fire department. Aside from raising the property tax, there is real art in finding ways to pay for services residents expect, such as a police department or decent roads. Unless we can be certain that technology investments will create some return, barreling down the path of modernization may mean less money for core local services. Digital tools that simply create convenience without increasing revenue or decreasing costs are simply a nice-to-have but unnecessary amenity.

Second, the internet is instantaneous. Everything is on demand. Government is not instantaneous. It’s very structure ensures that change happens incrementally. There is likely going to be some delay in fixing the sidewalk crack you just snapped a picture of on your smartphone. If the crack is promptly repaired, a tradeoff has occurred somewhere else. Something didn’t get done that somebody expected done. Instantaneous communication creates the illusory expectation of instantaneous results. When results don’t materialize as fast as expected, dissatisfaction rises.

Just as I began to put the finishing touches on my thoughts for this piece, I encountered two great examples of the frustrated expectation of the instantaneous. At our weekly city council meeting, a resident showed up and waited for his turn to speak. The complaint? The city’s app didn’t allow him to report a specific type of roadway concern. He actually had to call a phone number! At the same meeting, another resident patiently waited for her turn to speak. She was very upset about the water contamination issue, and the lack of public outreach. In this case, she received a hard copy notice of the issue on her front door shortly after the incident. How “old school.” Where was the tweet, the Facebook post, or the emergency text message?

Finally, as government implements technologies to aid communication, it should jealously guard human connection. Few people contact elected officials or go to a meeting to highlight things going right, like the water coming on, garbage being picked up or traffic lights working.  People generally only communicate with government about problems. Given this context, faceless communication can easily take an antagonistic attitude. Many times I have responded to people expressing a completely reasonable, legitimate concern, but the caustic tone of their e-mail or phone call makes it difficult to want to help. On the other hand, I’m sure I haven’t always been the ideal picture of customer service. Neighbors like to complain about neighbors when they can remain anonymous. Ask the complainer their name, and suddenly the concern about the noise next door is not that important. I find that when people take time to put a face on a problem, the communication generally takes on a more collaborative tone. It may be archaic compared to the technology of today, but authentic face-to-face communication generally leads to better outcomes. Sure, not every issue requires such an effort, but let’s not force those that do into a technological box.

As local leaders implement convenient ways for government and people to exchange ideas, they would be wise to think about whether or not these tools actually make things better for people. Let’s be confident that “smart” tools are actually that and not simply novelties. Without carefully considering existing resources, false impressions and the risks of anonymity, we might be creating more dissatisfaction. 

Author: Mike Applegarth, Executive Director of the Sandy City Council Office can be reached at [email protected].

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