How Government Can Bridge the Innovation Gap

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

– Excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Little Dorrit

NEW ORLEANS, LA (May 10, 2021) – Since long before Dickens so wittily invented the “Circumlocution Office” in his 1850s serial Little Dorrit, government has been perceived as slow, overly complicated, and often nonsensical. Unfortunately, most people dread their necessary interactions with government. We on the inside appreciate that “government” is actually made up of hard-working, innovative people dedicated to public service. The problem is, they’re up against deeply rooted cultures, swirling political winds, disjointed systems, tight budgets, and volumes upon volumes of ever-shifting policies and legislation. Together, all this can make delivering a great user experience quite the challenge.

The tech industry, on the other hand, is all about innovation and improving the way we do everything from buying groceries to catching a ride. The apps people use in their everyday lives are centered around the individual and make life easier.

So, how can we in “GovTech” better bridge the services of “Gov” with the innovation of “Tech”? Here’s a short list:

1. Center on the End User

While governments haven’t traditionally taken this “end user” approach, that’s precisely what’s needed and what successful states are doing.

Take Indiana for instance. The state’s innovative InBiz is a one-stop resource for constituents to register and manage their businesses and ensure they comply with laws and regulations. It’s made doing business in the state as easy as ordering a rideshare in any city.

Why aren’t all states doing this? It’s not for lack of desire or know how. Beyond budgets and politics, a major reason GovTech has been slow to innovate in this way is that agencies traditionally have focused on the discrete services that they provide at the center of what they do.  Thus, people interact with government for a range of purposes that are spread out across the domains of any number of disjointed agencies and departments that use a series of disconnected systems, and this leads to a frustrating and cumbersome experience for the individual.

But rather than thinking of services at the center of what government does with constituents revolving around them, governments should flip that to place constituents at the center and services revolving around them. This new perspective is how government can begin to “innovate” with the best of Silicon Valley.

2. Make the Ordinary Extraordinary

Innovation makes ordinary things extraordinary – simply by making them accessible.

Take for example the story of the Gameboy: The designer, Gunpei Yokoi, saw a man on a train playing on his calculator to pass time, and it sparked the idea of a portable gaming device. At this point, the Walkman had already been in existence along with handheld camcorders for nearly a decade. So, Yokoi took what had become ordinary (portable entertainment) and applied it in a new way – making portable gameplay accessible. Another example is personal computers: Apple found a way to make them accessible to the masses.

The process of interacting with government is often ordinary. But what if a person could, say, file an annual report by responding “yes” to a text message? What if they could check the wait times for polling locations the same way we know wait times for boarding planes? What if a first-time voter has access to an interactive educational experience on the election process, including how and where to vote?

These ‘what ifs’ and so many more are possible. Government can bridge the innovation gap by applying current innovations to what may seem like ordinary constituent interactions. As Tom Freston, the co-founder of MTV put it, “Innovation is taking two things that exist and putting them together in a new way.”

3. Follow the Process

In spite of what we read about the mythological origin stories behind some of the world’s most revolutionary technologies, innovation more often occurs as the result of a methodical process centered on the end user. Here’s the one we follow at Civix:

  1. Begin with what we know
  2. Validate what we know through client and end users research
  3. Write problem statements
  4. Develop personas
  5. Validate problems and personas through feedback from client and end users
  6. Rapid prototyping
  7. Validate prototype with clients and end users
  8. Develop features with the end user in sight

4. Know Your Customer

Centering services around end users relies on knowing who they are. We guide states to discover and learn more about their constituents along several of the steps outlined above. With all this information, we paint a picture of different users’ everyday lives and show the intersecting points of where they’re going to use a given application.

For example, a young mother of three with a full-time job might only log in to a state’s voter portal twice a year. It’s going to be hard for her to remember where to go to get to what she needs. Modern applications can anticipate her needs, knowing when she last logged in and guiding her to the information she’s likely looking for. Ideally, dashboards change with personas, guiding users to features that address their unique wants and needs. 

5. Look Inward

Government must recognize that innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Implementing innovative technology is more than providing an application for constituents. It also changes the internal processes. Effective applications also change the way internal staff interacts with constituents, often making processes more efficient. Returning to the example of InBiz: it changed internal process leading to more effective interactions and communication between staff and constituents. 

6. Take an Iterative Approach

Innovation may seem like a massive, unrealistic undertaking for resource-strapped governments. But with iterative, quick releases, rather than implementing a large IT platform, it is quite attainable.

Iteration is key to fostering innovation. Unfortunately, it’s what is most often missing in government. Systems are implemented… the end. Imagine if Netflix had stopped innovating at mailed DVDs – or if it didn’t implement recommendations for its streaming video viewers – or if it didn’t increase video quality as higher bandwidth became available.

The set it and forget it framework (all-too-often adopted by government) is what leads to corrosion of systems – like an old battery. And when entire systems corrode, it’s costly and timely to fix and replace them. This is why we at Civix prefer modular systems that allow for speed, and more importantly, iteration.

We’ve enjoyed a great deal of success launching discrete modules in the market versus doing complete roll-outs. Most recently, we helped the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission pilot a new campaign finance application to a small group of users. This approach allowed us to gather valuable user feedback as well as socialize the modern technology among constituents used to a legacy system. When you innovate incrementally, you build trust – yet another benefit of iteration.

7. Build Trust

We also build trust in technology with comfortability and familiarity. For example, a person might not use a personal computer, but they may be very familiar with their smartphone. It is projected that “72.6 percent of internet users will access the web solely via their smartphones by 2025,” as noted by CNBC. This statistic isn’t far off considering in 2020 over 54 percent of internet traffic came from mobile devices. Therefore, applications should be scalable for mobile. The big take-away: considering the real-world ways people will use the tech is a must for building trust.

Another key way governments can instill trust is by incorporating advanced security principals. Technology must feel safe to users, and implementing security features, such as identity verification, can help them feel comfortable and ensure their information remains secure. At Civix, we employ 24/7/365 continuous monitoring, make policy-driven deployments based on best practices and security principles, and use best-of-breed monitoring.

8. Aim for Adoption with User Experience (UX)

The best, most expensive system in the world is worthless if people don’t use it. That’s why UX is essential. Just like systems, experiences can become static and disintegrate overtime. Creating and implementing a continual cycle of user feedback ensures a system remains, well, usable. Unfortunately, UX is often overlooked in GovTech and made more complicated because of legal requirements. At Civix, our UX and UI strategies focus on accessibility and anticipating the needs of users. For example, we’re incorporating features like “search” with natural language, and machine learning, such as through automated chat, to meet the needs of users while also reducing demands on government resources.

9. Partner with the Right Team

Government is full of people thinking outside the box. Like never before, modern technology is making innovation in government possible. Of course, choosing the right partner, like Civix, who shares your vision and has the experience to see it through is key. If you’d like to learn more about our process for innovation, reach out at: [email protected].

Civix Director of Products Thelma Van oversees the company’s software development process to advance its mission to ‘transform the public sector.’ She previously served as a UX/UI strategist for Civix as well as a creative director and UX design professional for a company providing payroll, human resources, and payment technologies to businesses and state  government agencies. Van is leading Civix on the forefront of innovation in GovTech.