Commentary: Digital Government Has a Ways to Go

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama’s call to serve citizens online still needs to trickle down to the state and local level.

President Obama has earned his reputation as the Internet president. From the behavioral analytics used to run his campaign to the Google “fireside hangouts” to his Twitter sessions, Obama has been masterful in using technology to market his message. Now firmly entrenched in his second term, the question is, when will he use his Internet savvy to lead and transform digital government?

Obama has pledged to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, polices and services for the 21st century,” but that’s a pretty tall order. While his technology vision is quite compelling, it focuses much of the service delivery at the federal level. What isn’t addressed is that a great deal of citizen interaction with government is at the state and local level. The same ideas that revolutionize Obama’s presidency at the federal level can also be put to use in state and local governments.

E-government at the state and local level hasn’t evolved much in the past 13 years. The initial charter of employing the Internet to deliver government information and services to citizens is still a good one.  By its very nature, e-government is grounded in a foundation of good information management practices. In the private sector, information management has evolved greatly. What lessons learned in the private sector can be applied to the public sector?     

Powered by Data

Big data is big news and offers big value. The first Obama campaign was won with forward-thinking use of data. Private sector organizations are attempting to understand how to collate, store, process and build a framework to digest their data. They are attempting to turn their data into information -- which is data with context. This is not a new challenge, but the scale has grown vastly. Government agencies, whose business model is based on information, are trying to build a framework that can harness the power of their data. Accomplishing this requires redefining digital government, which traditionally is centered on the stylized and traditional transactions between agency and citizen. Government needs to engage citizens like the private sector treats clients.

Cities and states must expand the scope of digital government to include a citizen-as-client model that engages constituents via social platforms -- and track this engagement through a customer relationship management methodology. Agencies should be proactive on social platforms. Instead of broadcasting tweets they could look for opportunities to connect -- ask questions, conduct informal polls. These interactions generate data that can be used to better serve citizens. Envision a municipal portal where a property owner logs in to apply for a building permit. Using the information it collects, the portal recognizes the applicant also is a dog owner, for example, and reminds him that his pet license is about to expire.

Driven by Consumers

Consumer technology has become the lens through which people view and experience the world. Tech-savvy government workers and citizens are using widely available and powerful devices to stay connected, informed and productive. For the most part, new technology emerges first in the consumer market -- where people want the latest and greatest gadget -- and then spreads to business and government. This consumerization phenomenon is a major shift in the IT industry, where government once dominated computer use and development.

Citizens want the ability to use the same smartphones, tablets and laptops at home and at work -- technology that enables collaboration anywhere, anytime. This can be problematic when devices lack security, compatibility or external controls. The first step for state and local agencies is to acknowledge these consumer demands and take precautions that address security and interoperability issues. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act offers a framework for integrating data and the power of the Web.  

Some agencies have made public engagement and digital services so good that people prefer them to traditional processes. Others are struggling to get there. But resisting is no longer an option. Citizens are demanding less talk and more action on e-government.

Kimberly Samuelson is vice president of strategy at Laserfiche, an enterprise content management technology firm.