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Mobile Technology, Co-Creation and the Empowered Citizen

Mobile devices are powerful platforms for engaging citizens as partners in transforming the public sector. Governments need to move faster to take advantage of this opportunity.

Today's consumer is a power player. Citizens enfranchised by rapid advances in mobile technology are breaking down traditional barriers between producer and consumer. The resulting model of co-creation is contributing to loads of innovation in the private sector as companies realize that success requires an engaged customer base. Like these successful companies, government has the opportunity to leverage a growing network of mobile-empowered citizens to improve how it delivers services.

Content fuels this consumer-driven model. Corporations have become increasingly skilled at using mobile technology to harvest data and use it to co-create products and services with their customers. Think of all the people who check in to Foursquare throughout the day, or those who upload photos to Flickr or Instagram. Today's netizens are using their interconnected mobile devices to provide content that is revolutionizing the marketplace.

Established players are learning this strategy from the startups. Nike, for example, has created a variety of Nike+ products that use mobile devices. The Nike+ website and sensors embedded in running shoes keep customers engaged with the brand, allowing them to track their runs and connect with other runners. Content is key.

Government agencies should follow the trail being blazed by these innovative companies. Because of their ubiquity, mobile devices are excellent platforms for engaging citizens as partners in transforming the public sector.

Mobile technology's true power lies in its ability to facilitate co-creation. Instead of using a one-way service-delivery model, mobile technology enables governments to enlist connected citizens to co-create or co-produce new government services.

Co-creation focuses on developing new solutions with people, rather than for them. That's the approach the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took when it sponsored a "Flu App Challenge" to solicit new mobile apps using publicly available influenza data. The winning entry, "Flu-Ville!", is a game in which players build their own cities and manage flu outbreaks.

Games of this sort can help governments crowdsource ideas for handling a wide variety of public challenges. They also raise awareness, mitigating the challenge in the first place. But game contests are just one way to approach mobile co-creation in the public sector:

Solutions that can be shared. In Boston, Code for America developed an app for the city that allows volunteers to "adopt" fire hydrants, clearing snow from them after winter storms and then reporting when the work is done. The city uses a geographic information system to track the volunteers' activity, allowing the city to direct public workers only to those hydrants that still need attention. This idea was tweaked and adopted in snow-free Honolulu to allow citizens to check the batteries in tsunami sirens and record their findings. In both cities, mobile technology has empowered citizens to contribute to tasks that were once exclusively reserved for public workers.

Co-production. Under the co-production model, mobile technology enables services based on not only content but also on the knowledge and physical resources that citizens can provide themselves. For example, when Hurricane Sandy shut down much of New York City's transit system and forced temporary restrictions on bridge and tunnel crossings, several car-sharing and ride-sharing services waived their fees. Commuters also tapped their own social networks to help them meet the three-passenger minimum imposed on cars entering Manhattan after the storm. When government could not deliver crucial transportation services, citizens discovered that help was right at hand, especially if that hand held a smartphone or tablet.

Traffic management. The navigation app Waze uses live feedback from its driver network to generate real-time traffic reports and adjusts its route recommendations accordingly. Simply by avoiding congested areas, mobile-enabled drivers are co-creating a better travel experience. Similarly, the growth of real-time ride-sharing apps and sophisticated public-transit apps is providing citizens with information on transit options and encouraging them to modify their travel behavior. Users are participating in tackling traffic and congestion, perhaps without even intending to.

Providing first aid. Co-production improves not just service delivery but also the way the public sector approaches a problem. In a range of cities across North America, the PulsePoint mobile app employs sophisticated location-based services to alert CPR-trained citizens about nearby emergencies. With the help of technology and citizen rescuers, governments can deliver faster emergency response without devoting significant new resources.

The public sector is often late to adopt new technologies, and the newest generation of mobile devices and applications is no exception. This year governments are expected to spend a lower share of their budgets on mobile devices than any other industry sector except for media and retail. This should change.

Government needs to employ mobile technology not only as a tool to make its own employees more productive but as an instrument for renegotiating its relationships with constituents. Mobile platforms offer a new way to provide services that people need--and to gain their help in delivering those services. This technology is the great equalizer and a path to a more participatory public sector.

This article is adapted from William D. Eggers' and Joshua Jaffe's new Deloitte study, "Gov on the Go: Boosting Public Sector Productivity by Going Mobile."

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