If You Can’t Say Anything Nice About Local Government…

When I was a little kid there was a local TV show that showed cartoons. It was hosted by Cowboy Bob, who sang and played guitar. Tumbleweed, Cowboy Bob’s dog, was on the show everyday, too. Cowboy Bob had a favorite saying: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I’ve been trying to implement that childhood saying into my adult life.  I admit it’s a bit of a stretch some days.  In this post, however, I’m able to share a good thing, a “nice” thing, without reserve—no caveats, no really looking hard for something nice to say, no biting my tongue.  Whew!  What I have to share is all good.

On behalf of AT&T, I was given the honor of providing the opening remarks for this year’s Digital Cities Survey Winners Webinar.  This is the tenth annual survey sponsored by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government and the Digital Communities Program. The intent of the survey is to identify and share best practices across local government. The winners from each of the four population categories spoke about how their city or town incorporated information technology services into their operations to better serve constituents. The top 10 winners in each population category can be found on the Digital Communities web site.

Faced with a sluggish economy and substantial budget cuts, local governments have had to dig deep in recent years. The mantra, “Do more with less,” is all but tattooed on every government employee’s forehead.  The top Winners of each population category — City of Boston, MA, City of Richmond, VA, City of Pueblo, AZ, Town of Castle Rock, CO – highlighted their major achievements of the past year in terms of how they used technology to improve their level of service to constituents.  Words like “serve,” “efficiency,” “innovation,” and phrases like, “in spite of budget cuts,” were heard in every presentation. I found the earnestness with which they focused on providing the highest quality of service for the least cost reassuring and inspiring.  They were able to achieve big savings by using technology and making tough business decisions – not by reducing services to constituents.

The four winners mentioned too many fabulous ideas in their speeches to list here, but my favorites fell into three categories:

  • Make it easy to engage citizens
  • Open government
  • Use technology to simplify the lives of citizens

Make it easy to engage citizens

One of the Winner Cities implemented Citizen Connect App, a new mobile app available on both the Android and iPhone platforms. The app connects residents to the city and to their neighborhoods. Via the user-friendly app, citizens are able to report potholes, graffiti and other service issues and track the status of their requests.  This city’s focus was to combine personal service and technology.  I’ve heard of similar applications in other cities but I’ve never heard a local government CIO talk about it.  It was neat to hear him explain how the technology can make it easier for constituents to connect with their government (including constituents they’d not been able to connect with before) and, ultimately, improve their lives. He also spoke about how the technology brought the people closer to their neighborhoods.  Pretty cool.

Open Government

The examples that emphasized government’s transparency really hit home with me in a “for the people, by the people” kind of way.  The focus of these particular local governments to provide meaningful, helpful data via technology was reassuring.  They didn’t have the “check a box” type mentality so often associated with government agencies. No “providing the data because we have to” type of feel.  The discussion at the webinar focused on how to share relevant information in a manner useful to the public. Meeting notes, GIS data and performance metrics are examples of the information provided in an effort to engage citizens and increase accountability. While it’s true that this type of information can be a little dry (I’m still saying something nice!), the meaning behind the data was really interesting, and the energy of the presenters was invigorating.

Use technology to simplify processes

Here are a few of the cool services these municipalities provide online: applying for licenses (from building permits to vehicles to hunting) and paying for fees and services (parking tickets, property taxes, utility bills, motor excise taxes, to name a few).  I checked out each of their sites as well as my local community’s site. The Digital Cities Survey Award Winners mentioned how much effort had gone into making their communities’ web sites user friendly and interactive, and it shows.  The local government sites are incredible. The sites vary from community to community, but here are a few innovative ideas you will find out there:

  • links to commend a police officer,
  • links to youth programs,
  • a list of local cab companies and their telephone numbers,
  • videos of big announcements,
  • community calendars,
  • free city concerts, and
  • info if you’re new to the area (including how to handle tornadoes if you’ve just moved to the Midwest).

Granted, it was a while ago, but the last time I’d visited my local community’s web site, it was basically a compilation of telephone numbers for the city departments and a list of city parks. In the past few years, local governments have taken technology and run with it. As a result, they’ve simplified and bettered the lives of their constituents.

What a world it would be if we all lived by Cowboy Bob’s words of “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?”  What a better world it would be if we all had such an inspirational event to attend like the Digital Cities Survey Award Winners Webinar so we didn’t have to dig deep to say nice things? If anyone has good news about how technology is making it easier for citizens to connect to governments, feel free to share.

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