Using Digital to Bridge the Gap Between Cities and their Citizens
Digital, as a broad category, has the opportunity to fundamentally shift the ways that we communicate and access information. But we all know that, right? We know that a digitally connected organization has better access to its community, that people in that community are more likely to use its services, and that they are significantly more likely to tell their friends about it. Yet, we still relegate this digital thing to a sub-department, or even a single role within the communications or IT team. I’m going to make my case for a truly digitally connected organization using one of the most difficult, but most important, places that we can affect change: City Hall.
My experience working with municipalities has taught me two things definitively:
- There are good people who mean well trying to create more digitally-connected cities
- They are handcuffed by org charts and processes that were created in the days before fax machines
The problem is that we’re looking at the opportunity far too narrowly, which forces us to view digital only through the lens of Communications and IT.
A digitally-connected city is a lot more than an Instagram account and a website. It’s a city hall that is connected to its citizens. It’s a community that proactively communicates, and is accountable to its citizens. That means that it’s not just a department that takes photos and writes copy; it’s research, polling, communications, promotions, recruiting, events, and internal communications. In short, a digitally-connected city positively affects everything that happens inside City Hall, and the people who live within its city limits.
A Digitally Connected City: The Case for Barcelona
Let’s start with an easy example. The City of Barcelona had been an early adopter of social media, but like many of us, they treated it like a novelty rather than a fundamental practice. The result was over 600 city social media accounts that had no consistency, oversight, or coordinated value. They were entirely decentralized and it was nearly impossible for citizens to know what should they follow, where or even which accounts were official city properties (source: Hootsuite.com).
To combat the chaos, Barcelona pulled their social media priority all the way up to City Council, working across the entire organization to determine the role that social could, or should, play for the entirety of the organization and the good of the citizens. What they did was switch to treating social media as a powerful asset and a fundamentally important tool. They developed a city-wide strategy, built brand standards and trained thousands of municipal staff on the skills, and the ways that they could contribute.
Beyond some pretty PDFs and training sessions, the long term value came from cementing social media’s importance by creating a Centre for Excellence that existed to advance Barcelona as a socially connected city and (importantly) consisted of some of their most senior officials who could break down barriers and open doors when needed.
But that’s still just social media, which represents a small portion of the impact that digital will inevitably have. In a Deloitte survey of more than 1,200 government officials from over 70 countries, overwhelmingly they reported that digital technologies are having a major impact on government:
- 3/4 of the respondents reported that digital technologies are disrupting the public sector;
- nearly all (96 percent) characterized the impact on their domain as significant (source: Deloitte.com).
This study found that there are 5 key factors consistent across all organizations that have effectively embraced digital:
- A strategy that is aimed at the fundamental transformation of process
- Digitally sophisticated leadership
- An adequate investment of resources
- A central focus on the User (AKA the citizen) rather than the internal stakeholder
- A culture that tolerates risk and fosters collaboration
Notice that those are all very senior factors. No digital manager or third party agency, no matter how talented and well-intentioned, can drive the kind of change that’s going to actually create a digitally-connected organization.
So, what is the gold standard?
What the best-in-class had done was to intentionally and systematically address each of those 5 areas, whether they knew that they were doing it at the time or not. That’s going to look a bit different for every team to implement, but I’ll break down the consistent elements that I’ve seen in both private and public organizations that have become digitally connected:
- Strategy – There are volumes written about strategic development, even digital strategy, but to me the fundamental elements of success in this particular area are:
- That the people who can actually affect change are in the room
- That people with real digital experience are in the room
- Everyone is aligned towards a specific objective
- The strategy, once set, is clearly and powerfully communicated to everyone in the organization
- Leadership – It’s not just about the bosses, but it does start there. The very top leaders must clearly communicate that digital adoption is a priority, and not just in words. They must show that they are actively pushing forward, trying new things and discarding what’s antiquated. Those same words and actions must be mirrored by the functional leadership. We all look to senior leaders for cues about how we should act in our own roles, but when our direct managers don’t reflect those same behaviours, it’s easy to write them off and return to business-as-usual.
- Investment – Digital is real business, which means real budgets and real resources. There are many ways to plan a digital budget, and one that I often use on our projects is called the Displacement Method. In short, we start with the outcome or the results that we’re setting out to achieve. Then, we write down the ways that we’re currently getting that job done and the costs that will no longer be necessary. Next, we write down the value that the project will bring to the organization, add those two numbers together and we’ve got a total potential budget.
Here’s an example:
A local government needs to gather public input on a proposed development. Typically, they send people door to door; they hire a polling consultant to make a few thousand calls; they host a couple of town halls; they take out some print ads; they collect all of that data on a series of spreadsheets. The findings are distributed via in-person meetings and conference calls, and the results of the whole project are shared with the public through billboards and placements in the local newspaper.
To use the Displacement Method, simply sum up all of those costs, and then hold them up against the results. There will be elements of the traditional method that are worth keeping, but how long has it been since anyone really questioned whether those phone calls were the most effective way to gather the public’s opinion?
Here’s where having people with real digital experience pays off:
The next step is to look for more efficient ways to achieve the same, or better, results using digital tools. We then simply match the costs of those tools with the objectives that we’ve set. If digital can provide additional value, like greater data security, more efficient internal communication, or more accurate public polling, then we add that as additional value.
Finally, you take a hard look at your new plan. Have you gone too far? Some citizens still get their news from the local paper, so how do we make sure they’re still taken care of? Where have you not gone far enough? Could a full stack ERP investment make every project like this more efficient for the foreseeable future?
Next, you set a plan and evaluate the results. Easy, right?
- User Focus – All of the strategic planning in the world is for nothing if the end user doesn’t see any benefit. User Focus simply means seeing the entire process through the eyes of the people who are essential to the process. Of course, that means the city’s citizens, but it also means the front-line workers who will be affected, and everyone who will be responsible for executing on the project. User Focus means getting out of our ivory towers, and understanding the real impact of a digital project so we are actually creating benefit for everyone involved.
- Culture – What would a Strategy post be without at least a passing mention of this ambiguous thing that we call “culture.” I have no illusions that any single project or initiative can change an organization’s culture and even platitudes like “it starts at the top” fall flat in execution. Instead, I recommend being objective about your organization’s culture. Really get to know what it is, what it isn’t, and what works within its norms. It’s like learning the local language. No matter how great your story is, they’re not going to hear it until you’re speaking in a way that they can understand.
Most importantly, this stuff takes time. When we really take a step back and look at the ways that digital already affects every part of our organizations, it’s easy to see that we’re not talking about a few hashtags or a responsive website. Digitally connected cities take investment and commitment, and in order to keep pace with a digitally connected world, they are essential. The responsibility of a public organization is to serve its citizens, and that only becomes possible when both the organization and its people are speaking the same language.