Government Apps Are Popular, But Are They Useful?

What may seem like a great way to engage citizens may not be as effective as cities would like.

Robert Putnam wrote the thought-provoking book Bowling Alone in 2000, which explored how Americans were increasingly becoming disconnected from family, friends and neighbors. Changes in work, family structure and commuting times, among other things, were contributing to the divide and leading to a decline in traditional community social networks such as bowling leagues and parent teacher associations. But then came social media platforms and mobile devices, and many of these activities simply went online.

Soon governments followed, rolling out a host of apps in the late 2000s in an effort to engage citizens. Now about a decade into the trend, cities are beginning to look at how effective these technologies actually are -- and the data coming in so far isn’t all that encouraging.

States and cities largely began seeing apps and social networks as a way to engage citizens in 2009 with the launch of Boston’s Citizens Connect, which allowed for anyone with a smartphone to report problems and receive alerts from the city. The app proved so popular that the state adopted the idea and created Commonwealth Connect so that smaller communities could provide the same kind of interactive service that was available in Boston. “Today, the discussion may be about potholes,” Mitch Weiss, former chief of staff to the late Mayor Tom Menino, recently told The Boston Globe, but the technology could eventually evolve to “fuel dialogue about urban education or public safety.”

Indeed, apps and social media platforms are emerging that aim to facilitate these discussions. E-Democracy, for example, is a nonprofit that provides consulting, hosting and community forum services to help neighbors create online communities that not only exchange ideas and tackle local problems but also have an impact on how government is run.

Nextdoor, another neighborhood network platform, also connects neighborhoods and governments. Launched in 2011, it started out as a single network of more than 200 online neighborhoods and has reached 53,000 today. Participation is free, but is restricted to specific geographic areas. Postings on Nextdoor can only be seen by other active users who live within the neighborhood boundaries. But the site launched a second service when programmers realized many users were talking about public safety and blight -- topics which involve government. The new Nextdoor, which is now active in approximately 650 local government agencies, such as police, public works and utilities, allows public agencies to exchange information with online neighborhoods.

But like so many digital solutions, there’s a limit to what social networking technology can do. Citizens Connect, while hugely popular for reporting problems in Boston, has proven less stellar at engaging citizens with government. Few people use the app’s social media features and 38 percent never use the app to look at other reports about the city. In a detailed look at how Nextdoor is adopted and used by neighborhoods, the Georgia Institute of Technology recently found that most users already had a strong connection to their neighborhood; in other words, they weren’t “bowling alone.” In addition, those that did choose to participate struggled with deciding what level of personal information they were willing to share within their Nextdoor neighborhood, especially as the number of participants grew.

Of course, there is still a lot to learn about these apps and about social networks in general. But what may seem like a great way to communicate and engage may not be as effective as cities would like. That’s an important lesson for local officials who may be tempted to look toward technology as a solution to citizen engagement. Apps and platforms are useful tools that can expand opportunities for face-to-face dialogues, but they won’t replace them.

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.