How We Can Use Tech to Help Citizens Better Access Local Government

| Matt Stempeck

Originally published by CHORUS on Medium.

TEAM GOV Left to right: Regina Schwartz, Chief of Staff Department of Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of New York, Nicole Neditch, Senior Director of Community Engagement at Code for America, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director at Center for Technology and Civic Life, Matt Stempeck, Director of Civic Technology at Microsoft, and Stonly Baptiste, Co-Founder and Partner at Urban Us.

A few weeks ago, I got to spend two days in Chicago with a deep bench of civic innovators and senior campaign veterans to celebrate the launch of CHORUS, a new organization working to foster and strengthen the movement for equity, opportunity, inclusion, and justice. We shared candidly, brainstormed openly, and workshopped around advocacy, volunteering, voting, and governance, working out of the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Our team took on the challenge of governance, or more specifically, how to improve residents’ awareness of, and engagement with their local government’s services. Fortunately, we had exactly the team you’d want to put together to do that kind of thing (see photo above).

First, we considered all of the barriers to effective government, as well as the levers that we might have available to us to create change.

Some of the common barriers within government included siloing of knowledge within individual city agencies and departments, difficulty effectively communicating the work that is done, and an overriding risk-averse culture. Fear of a negative headline was mentioned several times. On the public side of the relationship, a major barrier is a lack of basic civics education and awareness of how government works.

Fortunately, our team had experience in accomplishing things with government, and could identify some tactics that have worked in the past. Small pilots were encouraged as a way to experiment without triggering the bureaucracy’s allergy to risk. The ability to get quick wins, and generously share the credit for them within government was also a proven method. Having a short amount of time to complete the project — a sprint — was also found to be a great forcing function. And we acknowledged the power of peer networks to connect communities of practice within government to one another.

Our next challenge was to create a concise problem statement. Given the universe of potential problems, this took some discussion. We framed the challenge with a helpful model of citizen engagement proposed by Regina.

Her model flips the infamous ladder of civic engagement on its side to demonstrate residents’ spectrum of engagement with government, from:

  • ignorance of the public sector’s role in their lives to
  • awareness of what government provides them to
  • a deeper understanding that we shape our governments to
  • a sense of agency to go from a recipient of services to a shaper of services

We chose to focus on the early stages of this journey, helping residents discover government services, and setting the stage for deeper engagement.

“How might we enhance people’s awareness of their local government’s impact on their lives?” With this problem statement framing our work, here’s what we came up with…

Increasing Engagement with Government Services through Contextual Discovery

Our solution might best be understood as a specific example in an applied setting:

You go grocery shopping. As you check out at the register, the Point of Sale device where you swipe your debit or credit card asks you if you’d be interested in receiving help paying for your groceries (we’ll test the exact language here for comprehension, inclusiveness, and a sense of empowerment). If you say you’re interested, the dialog asks for your cellphone number so a staffer within your local government can text you more information.

As you’re on the way home with your groceries, we send you a text that starts a conversation. Over the course of a few questions, we get a sense of your situation, and whether you might qualify for available benefits. We keep the conversation going, helping you discover other relevant government services, or connecting other people you know to the same.

When we zoom out and abstract this model beyond food benefits and grocery stores, there are three key components:

1. Natural context

Let’s surface government programs at the exact time and place that someone might want or need to make use of such a program (e.g. introducing SNAP benefits exactly as the person is paying for groceries, including tax preparation assistance on the tax forms).

2. Personal engagement

We set the stage for a genuine two-way conversation with the person that, over time and with additional communication, can grow into a true relationship. We chose SMS intentionally, knowing that low-income New Yorkers have access to smartphones, prefer communicating by text, and already use them to do their shopping and banking. Our conversation is designed from the onset to provide people with an increasing sense of agency. We begin with information about relevant services and grow the conversation over time to let people feel that government is listening, understanding that experiencing a responsive bureaucracy improves engagement.

3. Human-assistive technology

Recognizing that local government outreach staff may be busy (or non-existent), we propose to scale staff’s time with emerging technologies that will help them reach more people through personal channels.

In our example, the initial flow of the SMS conversation is pre-scripted, so that a staffer or even a chatbot can pull from a template bank to get in touch and begin the relationship. This allows the local government to qualify large numbers of people before more time-intensive conversation is needed (inspired by Hillary for America’s concierge voter text hotline).

So what’s next?

We’d love to see engagement services like the one described here tested in the real world. The lightweight version of this project could be accomplished with administrators at the local government level who are willing to try something new with a little bit of staff time, and a staff or volunteer technologist who could set up a simple texting program.

CHORUS is looking for partners interested in collaborating to bring this idea to life.

If you know of existing programs that achieve these goals, or if you’re interested in exploring how we might design a small pilot to try this out, please leave us a note in the comments or get in touch.

Tags: , , , , , , ,