Alexa and Siri Are Resetting Public’s Expectations for What a Good Experience with Government Could Be

“Some people want to come into the office, some want to call, and then there’s the generation that doesn’t want to deal with anybody.”
by Adam Stone | September 20, 2019 AT 3:02 AM

The winners of the third-annual Government Experience Awards, conducted by the Center for Digital Government,* stand out for their efforts to utilize government technology resources at a higher level, with mature implementations driving deeper and more impactful citizen engagements.

“We saw a greater sophistication in how jurisdictions are using their channels,” said Dustin Haisler, CDG chief innovation officer. “Do we want to use this particular channel or app? Where are people today and how do we best reach them? There was a lot more thought process going into that as part of the overarching governance, a lot more emphasis on strategy around the user experience versus the pure experimentation we’ve seen in the past.”

At the state level, this year’s nominees made wider and more complex use of emerging technologies. “Initially, a lot of states, for example, were using chatbots for basic Q&A, delivering information that was pretty readily available. Now we are seeing chatbots emerging for things like taxes, subjects that go into much more complex use cases,” Haisler said.

The counties have turned a serious eye toward long-term IT strategy. “There’s a big effort, for example, around APIs and support for third-party applications, even if they aren’t using those things yet. They are building the plumbing that will be needed to support the new channels and platforms that are emerging,” Haisler said. “It’s interesting to see how quickly things have evolved beyond just the website. They are looking not just at today’s needs, but also at what is coming next.”

Cities meanwhile increasingly have governance as a focal point of the IT agenda. “In the past, cities haven’t necessarily had an IT governance model, much less one that included citizen experience,” said Haisler. “Now they are putting processes in place to deal with the rapidly changing environment. They’re using governance to make smart IT decisions around the various emerging channels.”

INDIANA — FIRST PLACE IN THE STATE CATEGORY

Robert Paglia wants to meet people where they live. As chief administrative officer in Indiana’s Office of Technology, he doesn’t expect citizens to arrive at government’s front door with map in hand.

“Most people aren’t familiar with how state government operates, and so the website IN.gov has to serve as a portal to help us direct our customers to different places. Everything we do, we build it under the premise that people need direction to get to where they need to go,” he said.

His vision of citizen experience aligns closely with the consumer experience in the commercial world. “When you go to Amazon, you want a ‘thing.’ You don’t care if there are 50 or 100 service providers, you just want to get the product and get out of there,” he said. “We take that same approach with our customers.”

To that end, the IT team works hand in hand with agencies to constantly optimize the search function at IN.gov. “We put the search front and center and we do a lot of fine-tuning, looking at the places people go and refining the results of those searches to ensure we promote the appropriate search results,” he said.

Two governance groups help to direct the citizen engagement effort, one focused on communications strategies and the other on technical issues. Together they form a big umbrella. “We are able to be a partner to the agencies, with communications directors at the executive level, and we also have technical users of the tools that we provide to the agencies, people who can look at what the users want and can engage effectively with these tools,” Paglia said. “The magic comes in blending both of those perspectives to produce a great product.”

To make it easier for citizens to access that product, the state recently deployed its Access Indiana single sign-on portal. A public safety application went live first, along with 14 interconnected services that don’t require a login. “The long-term vision is that everything that requires a user name or password would use this system,” Paglia said.

“Customers interact with government on a fairly infrequent basis. If you have seven different user IDs and passwords, and you only come in once or twice a year, you have people constantly resetting their passwords,” he said. The portal approach “also helps us to better meet customer needs, because we can look at what they are doing across the enterprise and promote to them activities from other users who are similar to them. If you go in and renew a boating license, we can promote Indiana parks, or where you can book a cabin stay, or we can direct you to renew your fishing license.”

Extensive user testing and internal polling help to ensure that all these efforts align the citizen experience with agency missions.

Going forward, state officials have begun to roll out voice-enabled digital assistant applications. “We want to use the technologies that people have in their homes,” Paglia said. “We believe that is only going to continue to grow.”

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLA. — FIRST PLACE IN THE COUNTY CATEGORY

Officials in the Miami-Dade County communications department teamed with IT to strip the county website down to its bare bones and build it back up in a more user-friendly form.

“The last re-do was around 2001, so it’s been a long time and websites have evolved so much since then,” said Inson Kim, director of the communications department, which manages the website, the 311 contact center, social media and marketing.

The team’s main goal was to make information more readily accessible. “It was previously very department-centric, so if you didn’t understand how county government was structured, it wasn’t easy to find information,” said Digital Communications Manager Jaime Shycko.

“Now it is broken down into categories based on services. It’s built on search-engine technology with different facets and classifications including category, audience and organization. So a dog park can appear in 'Animals' or it can appear in 'Recreation.' The point is to make it easier for the users, to put it in normal-people language,” Shycko said.

The push for ease of access led the team to look not just at the structure of the site but also at the content itself. Some of the stuff was too promotional, rather than purely informational, and a lot of it was too wordy. “People these days don’t have time. They want to read in little snippets, do a transaction, find what they want and move on with their lives,” Kim said.

While the revamp addresses these issues, it was the shift to a search-based model that most moved the needle here. “Now if you ask for ‘transportation,’ you not only get the main Department of Transportation, but you also get transportation licenses, bus routes and schedules, and you can filter down to exactly what you want based on those results. It gives people a more personalized experience,” Shycko said.

The rework also responds to changing trends among Internet users. In the past, 60 percent of visits came from desktops and the rest from mobile devices; now that ratio has flipped. Responsive design ensures the relaunched site is mobile-friendly.

In addition to tackling such technical aspects, the team also focused on the human side, taking pains to drive organizational change within city departments. “For every department, we did presentations of the design, the reasons behind it, what was driving it,” Kim said. “We also showed them the baseline analytics to help them understand why people were coming to their sites.”

Going forward, the team is looking to expand upon those analytics by merging the 311 and Web, site databases into a single data source. “It’s a huge project, but it is valuable to us. It will help us to see how we can break down this huge amount of information and make it valuable to the end user,” Kim said. “The end result will become a newly structured data type, with frequently asked questions that are more deeply integrated into our services.”

RIVERSIDE, CALIF. — FIRST PLACE IN THE CITY CATEGORY

Officials in Riverside, Calif., have made a big push to ensure that citizens’ online experiences with government mirror their real-world interactions with the city.

Take for example the “One Stop Shop,” a physical location in a city where individuals can go to access a variety of city services. Lately the city has moved to augment that with comparable online tools. “We already have electronic plan inspections through that, and now we are working to offer permitting, payments and fees in electronic form,” said Chief Innovation Officer George Khalil.

The point is to create uniformity across platforms for any given citizen interaction. “We need to make this easier for our customers, so in addition to creating a physical space, we can extend the experience digitally. Then you know that you can either walk in the door or sign onto the website, and you’ll still have the same seamless experience,” said city Marketing Officer Stephanie Harvey.

Riverside has taken a similar approach with its “Happy or Not” feedback tool. It’s a simple mechanism: Users rate their experience by selecting from one of four smiley (or not smiley) faces. The system, which the city licenses on a subscription basis, works the same whether utilized online or in person at city offices. The online version also allows for user comments.

“It’s a way for people to give a quick rating: Here’s how I am feeling about what just happened,” Harvey said. “That real-time feedback helps us to identify problems and it also helps us to develop content if there are things they couldn’t find. We can use that to make real changes in how we develop Web content.”

In a further search for citizen feedback, the city also has implemented a formal complaint function in its 311 center. “A big part of customer service is knowing what we are doing well and also what we are doing poorly,” said Deputy Chief Innovation Officer Chris Tilden. “Prior to this, we didn’t have a formal system for that.”

The move likewise addresses the theme of continuity of experience. “Whether we are dealing with graffiti removal or customer sentiment, we want to be able to track that, and we want people to report it seamlessly, whether they call 311 on the phone or use our 311 mobile app,” Khalil said.

They don’t just track the bad news. A recently added “I Love Riverside” function allows 311 users to report on their good vibes as well. “311 can feel very negative: There’s a pothole, someone missed my trashcan,” Harvey said. “As public employees, there’s a lot of hard work, a lot of long nights, and the positive messages allow us to recognize employees who are doing a great job.”

Going forward, city officials are looking to leverage emerging technologies as a way to drive enhanced citizen engagement. This includes a pilot that will utilize smart-speaker integration to provide service-request status through Alexa-type devices. “Some people want to come into the office, some want to call, and then there’s the generation that doesn’t want to deal with anybody,” Tilden said. “We want to provide access on whatever channel is the most comfortable for our residents.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Governing's parent company.