Often, e-government is presented as an all-or-nothing solution. We love to point to cities which have become fully connected, automated even the smallest of processes, and fully embraced Internet of Things technology to coordinate everything from garbage pickup to traffic reduction.
The push towards e-government is driven in part by consumers. Consumer technology has created a desire for on-demand services and 24 hour access to government via social media and the Internet. Whereas a manual process – filling out paperwork, waiting in line to write a check, then waiting for weeks as the physical paperwork is faxed, stamped, and filed – may have satisfied customers before, today there's a growing demand for those services to be online, and accessible. Citizens want government their way.
But for cities with limited resources, installing smart sensors on every civic garbage can may seem like an unnecessary pipe dream. As with many new initiatives, resources and usability present large hurdles to innovation. Cities with limited budgets might balk at the cost of an inexpensive new system, or not be confident in the ability of their employees and citizens to use them.
Often, this creates a gap between what citizens want their government to deliver, and what services are actually available. Citizens who can make their car insurance payment through an app on their phone still have to stand in line at the DMV to write a paper check. Whole systems won't change overnight, but advances in open data tools, geographic information systems (GIS), and mobile technology have made it easier than ever for governments to take small steps that make big differences.
The challenge of resources
Costs are coming down for many e-government technologies, which means that even resource-strapped municipalities will be able to take advantage of these tools. For civic engagement, social media tools cost only the time it takes to use them. GIS software that used to require advanced degrees to use has been made more accessible, so that everyone can take advantage of the applications for constituent engagements and data analysis. The prevalence of cloud-based software and secure cloud storage has given governments greater ability to implement mobile strategies.
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Take open data for example. Even a small municipal government deals in an enormous amount of data. Making all of that open to the public – while beneficial – will take a huge amount of resources that city may not have to spare. In this case, rather than worrying about opening up all that data, official should focus on opening one crucial data set. Sort through your most popular requests for data from city clerks, and choose something like historic property tax information, or zoning information that a large number of your citizens are already searching for. That way you know you'll be serving the largest amount of constituents, while also driving down call volumes and freeing up that time for more important tasks.
E-government services provide usability challenges not only for government employees who are asked to use them, but also for citizens who may not be computer savvy. Governments need to make sure that no constituents are left behind as they take strides towards implementing more e-government solutions.
Those usability concerns present challenges which can also be overcome by taking small steps. Providing online access to common forms are good place to start. Digitizing applications for building permits, licenses, marriage licenses and other standard forms is not only more convenient for citizens, but it can allow for improved workflows that streamline government operations, and can save time in redundant data entry.
The decision about which technology leaps your government should prioritize will come from discussions with community members and staff. Take into account constituent demands, budgets, and infrastructure when deciding what will be made more accessible versus what will be handed traditionally
Ultimately, government needs to focus on providing the best way of interacting with everyone, whether that's face-to-face, over the phone, or digital.