Doing more with less in Denver

When Denver Mayor Michael Hancock first ran for office in 2011, he pledged to improve city government by emphasizing openness and evidence-based performance. But upon his election, it looked like performance might have to take a back seat to simply getting the job done — however possible. With a 2012 budget that was $100 million short, the city faced the prospect of staff layoffs, furloughs, and a fourth straight year of budget cuts. On top of that, Denver’s exploding population — it grew by 80,000, or 13 percent between 2010 and 2015 — imposed unprecedented demand on already strained resources.

But under Hancock’s leadership, the new Denver team chose to respond to the crisis with a new set of citizen-friendly tools. “We knew that if we were going to improve the livelihoods of everyone we were working with, we needed to rethink how we served them,” said Brian Elms, Denver’s director of analytics and head of the Peak Academy, which provides data-driven training and support to city employees. “We also knew that if people came [in person] for every transaction, we’d never be able to serve them all.”

That realization led to the creation of pocketgov, an online platform and mobile app that allows residents easy access to city services (e.g. license plate renewals, reminders about trash pick-up). By shifting routine interactions online, the site and app have reduced in-person visits and call volume and are now saving the city an estimated $250,000 a year.

Denver’s success can be attributed to much more than the technology behind pocketgov. It also depended upon the city’s dedication to better understand residents and what might drive them to use the portal in the first place. With a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, Denver partnered with the Behavioral Insights Team to employ behaviorally informed approaches when communicating with residents about the portal. The goal was “to run experiments to see how we could get more people to go online to perform transactions,” Elms explained. “If we could create that habit, we could serve everybody faster.”

One of the city’s earliest efforts was to experiment with different language in emails that prompted residents to log on to pocketgov. That involved dividing an email list into two groups and then assigning a different email subject line to each group to see which worked better. The first email read “Pocketgov.com is giving you the gift of time this holiday season.” The second read, “’I’d rather be waiting at the DMV during the holidays,’ said NO ONE EVER.’” The second message was significantly more successful — with a 14 percent higher email open rate and a 17 percent higher click-through rate — and provided the city important insight into how to increase traffic to the portal. They continue to use these methods to encourage people to use the online system.

“We interact with citizens on a daily basis. And if we are not behaviorally informed, we are missing the opportunity to help them, to increase the livelihood of whoever we are working with,” Elms said. “So, every piece of marketing material should be behaviorally informed. If I want someone to pay for their waste water bill online, we need to make it easy for people or else we are doing our citizens a disservice.”

Since the pocketgov test, Denver officials have run other trials. One focused on shifting license plate renewals to the online system. To do this, the city looked at micro-behaviors — the small steps one takes — and used insights about how users make choices to figure out the best way to encourage people to renew online. In another case, reframing the language in a letter encouraging businesses to use the city’s web portal resulted in a 42 percent increase in businesses filing their city taxes online.

Denver is now planning even more tests — focused on everything from returning library books on time to court appearances and littering in the park. “We are trying all sorts of things to be more flexible, nimble, and accessible to residents,” Elms said. “These types of techniques are amazing to make it easier for citizens and make sure we can serve the people of Denver, given our growth rate.”

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