In our Guide to Digitizing Government, we laid out some of the biggest reasons why city governments should be focusing on transitioning their outdated manual processes into streamlined automated services. But once you understand why going digital is so important, the obvious next question is “How?”
To get some answers, we interviewed Paul Malin, VP of Business Development at CitySourced. CitySourced is a citizen engagement platform that enables cities to develop central smartphone apps that connect constituents and government.
Paul and his team have helped over 125 cities in eight countries implement their own apps, so we asked him to give us some honest advice on the nitty-gritty of getting a digital initiative off the ground and guaranteeing its success.
1. Don’t get RFP tunnel vision
When it comes to procuring vendors for digital initiatives, Paul recommends thinking outside the RFP.
“In government technology, there’s a tendency for RFPs to determine the kind of work that gets done, and not the other way around,” says Paul. “If the only way for a vendor to tell you their ideas for improving engagement is through an RFP, then those ideas are going to be limited by the parameters of your request.”
City officials should be open to new technology, and do their research about available solutions before putting out an RFP. Otherwise, they might end up getting just what they asked for (which isn’t necessarily the best outcome).
2. Take some of the pressure off of IT
“Whenever a potential client asks me why they should choose an outside vendor over their own IT department, I always ask ‘why don’t you have them build a new email system and search engine as well?” says Paul.
“Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but the point is that as smartphone apps become more advanced, it becomes increasingly difficult to start from scratch.”
Paul recommends using the “Lego blocks” created by other cities and the private sector. While each city will have their own unique needs for their digital projects, they can typically get most of the way there by taking advantage of pre-developed pieces.
“Plus, when you work with a vendor like CitySourced, the cost of developing these solutions is spread across hundreds of clients,” says Paul. “We’ve been working on this technology for years, and we can offer it for a fraction of the price of creating it from scratch.”
3. Be prepared for big tech changes
One more reason cities should turn to outside vendors instead of internal resources: It helps shield them from big changes to core technologies that could affect their digital services.
“We deal with smartphone apps, so obviously we rely pretty heavily on what Apple and Google decide to do with their store platforms. So when Apple decided out of the blue to change their rules and remove any template-based app from the app store, a lot of governments that had native apps started to panic,” says Paul.
A vendor partner like CitySourced or SeamlessDocs is responsible for monitoring changes to the technologies that form the foundation of city-specific solutions, whether it’s smartphone hardware or web browsers. When those technologies change, a partner can be proactive and go to work on a solution quickly. If your digital service was built internally, on the other hand, it could take time to even identify a problem, let alone fix it.
4. Share services to reduce costs and increase engagement
At SeamlessDocs, we recommend that departments and agencies who can’t get the budget to hire a vendor combine their purchasing power. Working together, they can overcome fixed startup costs and get more for less.
Paul from CitySourced takes this suggestion one step further.
“Working interdepartmentally can actually help increase engagement,” he says. “In the app space, we see this a lot with 311 ‘report an issue’ apps and police department tiplines. Those are pretty similar actions for the user, so combining those functions in one app just makes sense. Plus, the fewer apps you have for different departments, the better engagement you’ll have overall.”
5. You don’t need to spend money to market your service
Adoption is one of the biggest question marks surrounding city government digital services. Once you’ve put all the time, money, and labor into creating an app or online form, how do you get constituents to use it?
Many city officials fear that getting people to use their new digital services will require costly marketing. But, Paul says, these officials shouldn’t necessarily turn to Google ads or bus wraps.
“One of the most effective ways to increase adoption of your new service is channel shifting,” says Paul. “A channel-shift marketing strategy involves adding messaging to the old channel informing users about the new channel. So, for example, if a constituent calls into your IVR system, add a recording telling them how to download the new app.”
How to optimize your government's next digital project:
- Research potential new solutions before putting out an RFP
- Understand the benefits of choosing a vendor over internal IT resources
- Consider the costs of maintaining digital services as underlying technologies change
- Share projects with other departments to increase engagement
- Use channel-shift marketing to maximize user adoption
SeamlessDocs and CitySourced are dedicated to helping city governments develop and implement digital services. Our teams have helped hundreds of cities go digital, so we’ve had experience with just about every possible roadblock. If you need help planning a path forward for your city, all you have to do is ask.