Public Interest Technology’s Promise for Better Citizen Services

For several years now the transition to an increasingly digital world has been very clear. The private sector has for the most part been at the forefront of modernizing the ways in which they reach their customers and, in general, governments have lagged behind – particularly at the local level. But people’s expectations and understanding of the art of the possible where service excellence is concerned has and continues to evolve. The pandemic has really helped to punctuate the fact that much more needs to be done to design policies and processes that result in government services that truly work for the people that rely on them.

Rapid advancements in technology have certainly been primary enablers for the massive changes we have witnessed in the last decade, and one only has to look at the way tech companies like Amazon and Shopify have disrupted supply chain and retail experiences to see this. Relative to the private sector however, the capacity for governments to leverage technology to the same extent has been hindered somewhat by lower representation of data scientists and other technologists among their own staff. The fact is many technologists do not immediately think of public service when considering a career path. The growing field of Public Interest Technology (PIT) aims to change this.

GovTech and PIT

Although the definition of both terms varies depending on who you ask, it is important to distinguish GovTech from PIT. GovTech is more general and refers to the use of technology to digitize government operations, is heavily influenced by technology companies, and usually has efficiency as its primary goal. PIT on the other hand is more about legitimacy, and mostly driven by public administrations that can bridge policy, service delivery and technology internally. New America, an important voice in the field, describes PIT as efforts to “adopt best practices in human-centered design, product development, process re-engineering, and data science to solve public problems in an inclusive, iterative manner—continuously learning, improving, and aiming to deliver better outcomes to the public.”

Access to the Right Data

A key pillar of PIT is the use of data to inform government activities. Data is needed to definitively identify problems that need to be resolved and furthermore, to measure the effectiveness of solutions as they are rolled out. For local governments this requires technology to capture and analyze the data, for example citizen engagement tools or a CRM built for municipalities. Equally important are public officials who can interpret and provide assurances that the full population being served is fully represented in the data, otherwise solutions put forward risk missing the mark.  Citizen engagement that is both broad and deep is essential to creating an informed and involved community and is absolutely critical for local governments to empathize and truly understand the problems that need to be solved.

Human Centered Design

Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology is a recently published book that looks at ways to use technology as a tool to achieve better services for the public. And while technology is cited in the book as a required and critical piece of the puzzle, the authors place even greater emphasis on human centered design to maximize the chance for success of new initiatives.  Human centered design is a process that puts the clients, or in this case the citizens being served, at the forefront when working to improve existing or creating new services. For example, where do they live? What time of day or, perhaps more importantly, night will they want to access the service?  What channels are most important for access? Is the user experience intuitive and simple enough to be completed quickly and without outside help? Is the user kept informed of status and progress? Resistance to change is human nature, and something to be expected with frontline staff who are used to do doing things a certain way. Although this may be a reality that needs to be considered, this should never be used as a reason to digitize a broken process.

Transforming municipal services to be more data and technology-driven may seem like a daunting exercise at first, but it is achievable. Having the right combination of data, technology and program design skills at the table is a good place to start and, although a relatively new and emerging field, there are now close to 40 institutions belonging to the PIT University Network that are committed to expanding the pool of professionals that meets this need.

Once the right resources in place, the old adage think big, start small, move fast is worth thinking about. Be prepared to prioritize the areas of greatest impact, pilot new solutions, measure the results, and refine until the best outcome is achieved. Your citizens will thank you for it, and will inevitably be more engaged and more willing to contribute other ideas to further improve the community they call home.