For Smarter Government, the Right Tech Brings Substance Over Style

April 26, 2021

Person Holding a Mobile Phone In Bokeh Lighting

To better serve communities, we need tech that does more than dazzle.

Our daily lives are increasingly saturated by technology that is almost magical. With our near-ubiquitous pocket computers, we can navigate confidently, connect constantly, and buy our heart’s desire with a single tap. We can ask a question to an empty room and get an instant answer. With so much made possible so easily, shouldn’t our government interactions be better by now?

When we measure the performance of government websites and digital experiences, we focus on user success: was the user able to complete the purpose of their visit? This reveals volumes about where a site or service is and isn’t living up to its potential. And our data shows that when it comes to modernizing government, especially at the local level, just “going digital” isn’t enough. Unless digital services are aligned with real community needs and designed to meet individuals where they are, they’re the online equivalent of an expensive paperweight.

We've written before about the importance of increasing the accessibility of public information and services. This includes building digital services that are accessible to individuals who use assistive devices and technologies, ensuring that websites support low-bandwidth devices, and generally providing experiences that are designed for the reality of the individuals who’ll be using them.

It also means that flexibility should be at the heart of all government technology, a lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic has seared into our shared understanding. People want choices. New technologies need to support more alternatives, not just supplant “the old way” of accessing a service with a single “new way.”

This is where tools like multi-channel, AI-powered chatbots can truly extend the reach of programs and services by providing multiple ways for individuals to connect.What makes an upgrade like this work is the combination of cutting-edge AI-technology with content strategy and public-sector expertise. We can zero in on thoughtful and data-backed ways to communicate with residents. A chatbot for chatbot’s sake does little to improve user success — we’ve got the data to prove it. But implemented strategically, with a keen eye on service design as well as the technical lift, these tools have the power to greatly improve the ease and efficiency of government-citizen interactions.

Building in flexibility is even more important as we face a future likely peppered with unforeseen disruptions. The pandemic has shown us that worst-case scenarios can come to pass, and frankly, it caught a lot of public agencies unprepared. User success rates are still struggling to rebound. But as we shape the new normal, we should be incorporating those lessons and using technology to create more robust access to vital services, regardless of circumstances. Achieving this will mean drilling down to the roots of what our public services truly require at each step along the way. Only by stripping them down to the essentials can we build technology that empowers the agency and the public instead of just slapping a shiny tech veneer on a shabby service model.

There’s a silent epidemic of failure across digital government. Right now, nearly half of the users we poll report that they are unable to complete the purpose of their visit. Their reasons vary widely, from a lack of necessary information to confusing processes to pandemic-shuttered access. It can be tempting to chalk it all up to user error. But instead of looking to excuse or explain away these numbers, we should take this as a wake-up call. We have access to a wealth of technology that’s making everyday tasks easier than ever before. Let’s put it to work in thoughtful, targeted ways to achieve not just greater user success but greater community success across the nation.