Pushing local government’s digital services to the next level

When the internet first arrived, it didn’t take long for local governments to make it possible for residents to go online to handle basic transactions, like paying a water bill or ordering a birth certificate, instead of having to trudge down to city hall to do it.

That was a big improvement. But since then, innovation at the local level has not kept pace with the private sector, exposing a wide gap between the seamless user experiences people now expect on their smartphones and the clunky ways they often still interact with government. Two decades later, what passes for digital services in many cities still looks a lot like putting paper government forms online instead of really rewiring both the back and front ends of the underlying services to make them work better or produce radically more value for the people who use them.

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Raising local governments’ ambitions in this area is the focus of a new Bloomberg Philanthropies investment in Europe. Announced last month, the initiative aims to accelerate digital innovation to improve critical city services and deliver better results for residents. All 28 capital cities of Europe will be invited to join the project this week, with London, Helsinki, and Bratislava already signed on.

Mayors of the 28 European capitals gathered in London last month.

The idea is to push the European capital cities to move further and faster by providing technical assistance and grants, as well as leadership development and peer-to-peer networking for the senior city staff leading digital services efforts. Cities around the world will benefit as these cities identify and share emerging best practices in this area.

There’s a lot of room for cities to grow, said Todd Asher, who’s worked with a number of cities in Europe and elsewhere on tech roll-outs through his work with Bloomberg Associates, a pro-bono consulting service that partners with cities.

“We’ve seen in a lot of instances where individual agencies or departments have brought services online, so you might have a system for paying parking tickets or to look up property deed information,” Asher said. “But on the other side of the screen, the government employees fulfilling these requests might be working the same way they have for years. There’s lots of potential for better service, faster service, more efficiency, and lower costs.”

[Read: 9 Ways cities can use data for results]

What’s needed is not just better versions of local government websites, said Dominic Campbell, CEO of FutureGov, a London-based firm that partners with public-sector organizations. Rather, city leaders need to put themselves in the shoes of the people using their services and re-think the whole user experience with their needs in mind.

In the U.K., Campbell said, the central government is generally ahead of local governments in working this way. The U.K.’s Government Digital Service launched in 2011 with a mission of building the government’s digital capabilities and focusing services on what users need rather than what the bureaucracy needs. Similar organizations have launched in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, the United States, Singapore, and other countries.

But local governments are beginning to catch up, across Europe and around the world. In London, where 32 local councils provide many of the day-to-day local services, the Borough of Hackney is redesigning its housing offerings. They’re using customer “journey mapping” and reviewing legacy systems to understand where digital services can create a smoother experience for residents. This is being worked through bit by bit, Campbell said, from allowing people to check their rent status online to changing the way people at risk of homelessness access temporary accommodation.

Part of the shift is language: They’re moving away from a confusing array of terms such as housing “benefits,” “choices,” and “adaptations” that mostly reflect the siloed government structure toward language that is easier for residents to understand. “They’re thinking very much about how to move from a ‘housing service’ to a ‘find a place to live’ service,” Campbell said.

[Read our explainer on human-centered design]

In the U.S., a great example of this way of working comes from Durham, N.C., where a new initiative is helping people to expunge low-level charges from their criminal records so they can get their driver’s licenses back. Instead of requiring residents to initiate a laborious and bureaucratic process, Durham partnered with the District Attorney’s office and others to filter a large data set of outstanding charges and dismiss tens of thousands of cases with the push of a button. Residents are offered free legal help to finish the final steps.

Initiatives like these “aren’t really about technology,” said London Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell. “Technology, of course, plays an important role, but it’s about culture and processes and ways of working. It implies a deeper program of reform.”

Often, Blackwell said, what’s needed for better services the public can touch and feel is back-end work on data systems and collaboration among agencies. For example, when Transport for London began publishing live data on train and bus arrivals, it enabled a proliferation of private services, like CityMapper, that help passengers figure out the fastest way to get around.

What government should be aiming for, Blackwell said, is to “deliver digital services that are so good people prefer to use them because it’s really easy.”

The new European Digital Innovation program is part of Michael Bloomberg’s larger efforts to strengthen city halls and increase their capacity to innovate. The foundation plans to announce participating cities and begin the formal program of support in late fall of 2019.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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