If you have any doubt about why governments engaged in digital transformation might want to involve their citizens, consider Singapore. Its open data portal has more than 680 datasets from about 70 government agencies and ministries, the public can access for free. Real-time data from government APIs are also displayed as maps or charts.
By tapping that information, citizens have developed more than 150 web and mobile apps, like StreetSine, a co-brokering platform for real estate agents.
"We are witnessing more meaningful apps and services created by citizens and organizations through the use of government data," said Peter Ong, Singapore's head of Civil Service, in a recent speech.
Around the world, governments at the local and national level are engaging in a major digital transformation, reshaping everything from the way services are delivered to internal procurement methods. While this change requires many elements, one especially crucial factor, according to technology experts, is engaging citizens in the process.
"….a growing number of governments are involving citizens in the actual creation of digital services"To that end, a growing number of governments are involving citizens in the actual creation of digital services, as well as making users the central focus of their efforts. For example, about one in five government agencies in Belgium and New Zealand engage citizens to help them create digital services, according to William Eggers, author of Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are Transforming Government and head of research and thought leadership for Deloitte's public sector industry practice. "Digital transformation thrives in an organizational culture with an agile development process that includes such elements as co-creation, openness to ideas from outside the organization, crowdsourcing and a Silicon Valley-style fail-fast-fail-quickly approach to risk," wrote Eggers in a recent article he co-authored in the publication Governing.
The result is a significant increase in government efficiency and effectiveness. For starters, it allows the larger community to help develop apps and services that meet their real needs. At the same time, such efforts allow governments to spend fewer public resources.
Singapore is one of the governments that is furthest along in these efforts. It first launched its open data portal in 2011; by 2015, 70 government agencies had published data on the portal. That same year, the government re-launched the portal with new features, such as interactive charts, dashboards and a blog for data narratives. Plus, it has published 92 map layers on a special geospatial open data portal called OneMap, where the public can get data on everything from the location of dengue clusters to WiFi hotspots. There's also a one-stop developers' portal for high-frequency data sets.
Along the way, government leaders learned an important lesson: The issue is not about quantity of information, but quality. That's why, as part of the 2015 relaunch, Singapore changed its focus from simply sharing as many datasets as possible, to focusing on specific data that can help the public. Result: Officials work closely with other agencies to push out more usable data on issues citizens care about like air quality and traffic hotspots.
But how to get citizens engaged? One effective way, according to Eggers, is for government agencies to run contests and challenges. That involves making data sets on everything from school attendance to pot holes available for app and web developers. And it can be done at the federal or local level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S., for example, held what it called a Flu App Challenge, by providing influenza data to mobile app developers so they could create apps. The winner of the 2011 challenge was Flu-Ville!. The app tracks flu activity in each state, allowing users to create their own city and better manage a flu outbreak. These efforts also allowed the CDC to gain insights into new ideas for flu detection and prevention.
On a more local level are competitions like New York City's BigApp contest, where officials invite programmers to create public service apps using open data. Example: JustFix.nyc, last year's grand prize winner in the affordable housing category, is a mobile web site for tenants to collect evidence to prove their case in housing court. In addition to allowing users to upload documentation from their phone and offering templates with language for emailing landlords, it also lets individuals report their situation to city or state agencies.
Making the public a vital part of the digital transformation of government requires something else, however: Making sure citizens are part of the process every step of the way. That involves three steps, according to Eggers. First is design, during which government develops the concepts for services through user-based research. Second: delivering on those designs using prototyping and multiple iterations. Last is operating the service, using analytics and close contact with customers to refine continually. "Citizens have to be involved in this way," says Eggers. "Otherwise you won't know how they'll actually use anything."
One useful method for governments to involve citizens is through crowdsourcing. Consider CitizenLab, a platform through which the public can provide input to city governments on different issues. Each municipality integrates the platform with its own, so the service seems to be coming from the city government. Hasselt, a city in Belgium, for example, recently tapped CitizenLab to reach out to the public about a city park's reconstruction. "This is a way for governments to hear the voices of citizens," says co- founder Wietse Van Ransbeeck.