Engaging Citizens through Technology

Martin P.Rose, CIO, Pinellas County
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Martin P.Rose, CIO, Pinellas County

As I started my career in the private sector, I had a very different view of the word “customer.”  Every business I worked for knew very intimately who their customers were and what they wanted or they did not survive. Customer feedback is imperative to business success.

“Citizens are now engaging their elected officials directly through E-Town Halls and Social Web Sites”

However, the word “customer” in the public sector takes on a whole new meaning as our final customers are you the “citizens” and, you are a captive customer base. Up until recently, the citizen’s perspective of traditional government has been somewhat “hands-off” and to interact only “as needed.” Typical government services were also not exciting or fun; permits, fines, taxes and fees do not peak citizens interest to be that engaging, most people engage only when they have to or need to.

Today, every type of government organization is “engaging” citizens in more and more electronic services starting with their E-Government portal. It is amazing to see the evolution of government portals over the last ten years. In the early days, portals were very utilitarian - content, contacts and forms. Now, every government entity has a portal and some are award winning sites. They supply citizens with many online services including traditional “drive and wait” counter services which would take hours to complete. You can renew your driver’s license, pay taxes and get permits, all online, still not exciting activities, but anything that saves the public time away from their job or family helps to improve their lives. Governments today would rather you “be online” not “wait in line.” Portals have also expanded into more marketing tools, which are needed to engage business and skilled citizens to come work in their state, county or city. The competition for companies who offer high paying jobs and the attraction of skilled talent to the area are significant, these two forces can drive new economic growth and tax revenue.

After portals, interactive citizen engagement followed particularity in Geographic Information Systems or GIS and in areas like transportation. GIS is a kin to using Google Maps. Government GIS services are more structured to citizen’s needs. GIS interactive maps are used by many citizens from neighborhood watches to view law enforcement crime data to realtors for mapping out property lines. GIS can even overlay elevation data from pipes buried deep underground to large aerial towers, an ideal view for construction activity. Within transportation, citizens can interact with traffic cameras to map out their best route home to avoid road hazards and construction. Vehicle GPS systems take transportation data into account for best route modeling.

One of first big areas of true two-way citizen engagement is in using mobility technology for traffic issues. Citizens are the eyes and ears of traffic as they are the main consumers of the infrastructure we drive on. Mobile calls from citizens about accidents and road problems start a faster response for law enforcement, medical and transportation crews. This mobility model essentially expands government’s input points especially in monitoring of critical infrastructure systems which is extremely important as government staffing is finite in reach and physical area.

The introduction of mobile technology adds a whole new dimension to citizen communications with their government(s). This use of citizens and mobile devices promote a new concept called Crowd Sourcing for Government. Wikipedia defines “Crowd Sourcing” as “the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people.”  That large group of people to government is you, the citizens. Most towns, cities or counties only employ a finite amount of staff for road crews to identify, plan and fix our very important infrastructure (roads, bridges, signs, sewers, water, drainage, electricity transmission, etc.). If every citizen had the ability to identify and submit issues they find in their everyday travels, this would significantly help repair crews respond and repair issues much faster.

New cloud mobile solutions for this type of crowd sourcing application exits today. This free application will take a photo of the needed repair area and then utilize the smart phone GPS tracker to “pin” a specific repair area on a work map for the repair crew responsible for that area. The citizen can then fill in any other information needed for the staff to repair the area. Citizens are also notified of the status of the repair work and in many cases an estimated repair time.

This crowd sourcing mobile application can also span other government municipalities, counties and even the state transportation jurisdictions to provide a seamless geographic feel to the citizen. This is the one of the powerful features of this application. Citizens do not like to navigate government geographic jurisdictions; it is too complex and burdensome.

E-Government and crowd sourcing solutions also create large volumes of structured and unstructured data. Business Intelligence and Big Data becomes a true need in not only providing insights into current environments for transparency reporting, but also in determining patterns for service improvement and predictive analysis models to foresee citizens needs into the future. Smart cities and counties will be incorporating these tools and processes to create communities and citizens that are true partners.

One very interesting new area for Government and Citizen Engagement is Social Media. Long touted as taboo, Social Media is being embraced by government. Citizens are now engaging their elected officials directly through E-Town Halls and Social Web Sites. E-Town Hall is a fantastic concept of allowing citizens to engage with their elected official via social media, email and web chat. And, as citizens get more engaged with government, they are engaging at council, legislative and commission meetings with more and more data that they can now look up at their own government’s transparency portal.

As you can see, technology is now enabling governments to engage citizens in many new and exciting ways. The Internet of Things, Social Media, Mobility, GIS mapping, Business Intelligence, Big Data and Transparency will be the future of proactive government along with their new partners—YOU!

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