Cities Go Digital

“Today, that critical connection to the wider world isn’t just physical. It’s digital.” – Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, in his 2018 State of the City speech.

In this day and age, mayors are utilizing technological developments to create more innovative and engaging municipal services for their residents. From “online city halls” to an increased interest in broadband, municipalities are eager to make local processes more effective, efficient and equitable. In a number of 2018 state of the city speeches, mayors talked about the importance of going digital. They broadly focused on five functions:

  1. Data Management: Mayors focused their discussion of data on its utility in enhancing government efficiency and on the importance of sharing data between departments. A wave of open data practices is moving through government offices at all levels, and local officials are eager to be part of it. For instance, Mayor Peggy Dunn of Leawood, Kansas, pointed to an initiative to create a “Fully Redundant Data Center” to help facilitate continuity of government, while Mayor Stephen Benjamin in Columbia, South Carolina, pledged to implement an open data portal for transparency in police activities.
  2. Internal Processes: A commitment to transparency and efficiency was emphasized in many 2018 state of the city speeches. Mayors discussed plans to employ new software platforms that would improve both communication and collaboration between city departments, as well as provide tracking and accountability of public resources. Cities are buying software designed to assist with a wide variety of government processes, including budgeting, procurement, time management, project tracking and personnel audits. Some cities are also realizing the equity implications of improved information tracking, with Mayor Cassie Franklin of Everett, Washington, noting that her city will use these tools to tabulate spending on social issues.
  3. External Services: Mayors indicated plans to integrate technology into basic city services, such as remote meter reading, and providing tablets to city employees conducting inspections to allow for immediate access to city databases. Notably, several mayors have already started instituting these changes. For example, Omaha, Nebraska, will create a system called “Omaha PASER rating lookup” to maintain a database of unimproved roads and provide information for adjacent property owners. Meanwhile, Mayor Andy Schor of Lansing, Michigan, announced that GPS trackers were recently installed on the city’s plow and salt trucks to enable citizens to track the street clearing process through their neighborhoods.
  4. Public Interaction: Mayors are keenly aware that most residents now expect online access to government functions. Thus, many local leaders are applying a customer service approach to government-citizen interaction. One popular way to improve residents’ experiences is by implementing streamlined electronic processes such as online bill paying and permitting. Fourteen mayors specifically discussed plans to create new or improved city websites in their state of the city speeches. Projects such as a “Virtual Desktop Strategy” in Plainfield, New Jersey, and the implementation of EnerGov software in Richmond, Va., will provide ways for citizens to upload documentation, and track and receive their permits online. These efforts will also allow residents to pay bills and register complaints, as well as learn about hearings and government actions online. Meanwhile, residents of West Palm Beach, Fla., will be able to use the “West Palm Working” site to follow the city’s progress towards meeting stated goals.
  5. Dynamic Interfaces: Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami stated, “I envision a Miami where you can pull a permit from your smart phone, and we are going to make that vision a reality.” Many cities are moving beyond website rehabilitation and into more dynamic and innovative methods of public engagement. Today, mobile applications are taking center stage. According to Mayor Stephen Benjamin, not only will Columbia, South Carolina. residents have access to the online citizen self-service portal, but they will also have access to an app called “City Works” through which they can file maintenance requests. Other cities plan to use apps for crime reporting and complaint filing. But the emergence of online portals and apps aren’t the only way government-public communication is changing. Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, will install kiosks in public parks with public transit information, a “smart city” approach that more cities will likely soon emulate.

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The search for better, easier and faster communication options between citizens and government was well summarized by Mayor Michael Brown of Grand Forks, North Dakota: “We want to make your interactions with the city as easy as possible…to enhance your customer experience.” Mayors and other city officials are there to serve the needs of their constituents, and in 2018, that means meeting the constituents where they are: online.


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About the Author: Lucy Perkins is the urban innovations associate at the National League of Cities.