3 Principles To Create More “People Centered” City Government

Brenna Berman and Mike Duffy Present “Reimagining the User Experience of Government” at the Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo

By Chelsea Collier, Editor-At-Large, Smart Cities Connect

When it comes to dealing with the government, it’s rare that you find someone excited about the concept. City departments are notorious for mountains of paperwork, confusing rules and inefficiency.  But according to a presentation titled “Reimagining the User Experience of Government” led by Brenna Berman and Mike Duffy [at the 2017 smart cities expo], much of that is beginning to change.

Berman and Duffy are experts on the topic. Berman serves as Executive Director of City Digital, at UI Labs and was most recently the Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago after spending more than a decade with IBM. Duffy is the Founder and CEO at CityBase, which is a company that “creates technology that makes government more personal and responsive.”

Berman and Duffy explained that in this era of smart cities, municipal leaders are making an important shift and are thinking of the people that they serve more as customers. This private-sector perspective is an important one and as Berman explained it “puts the end user at the center of interacting with the government.”

Berman cited an example of how the City of Chicago was able to reduce their website from 3200 pages to 1000. In the past, sites were built from “the inside out” and simply involved putting up information (like a city ordinance) online so it could be accessible to everyone. Not much thought was put towards how someone would interact with it, what their user experience would be like or how the information would meet his or her needs. By understanding how people used the site, they found unnecessary repetition; they were able to reduce and streamline the information and reduce the site by more than one-third.

Today there is a new mandate for city leaders which involves understanding what people want and need, and providing it them through a positive experience. Berman and Duffy emphasized three concepts that can assist city staff in transitioning from the old style to the new way.

1 – Empathy

Duffy stressed that cognitive empathy, which involves understanding things from your market’s perspective, is a critical piece of creating high-impact communications. This can be a challenge as government agencies are often hierarchical and tend to take the voice of the senior staff member instead of that of the customer.

He cited the Fogg Behavior Model as a way to overcome some of the institutional biases. The Fogg Model establishes the relationship between motivation and ability as a way of identifying what could thwart a desired behavior. If someone is highly motivated, they are more likely to work hard to achieve a goal, and the difficulty of the task is a secondary input. Most importantly, to understand how to motivate someone, you have to understand what it is that they want.

Berman cited an example of a program the City of Chicago implemented around providing food for the elderly. In the interest of efficiency, they instituted a meal home delivery program as opposed to aggregate dining. What they team didn’t realize that in addition to the food, the recipients were also enjoying the secondary benefits of community, conversation and companionship. When the collective experience was removed, the cost of other associated services increased because they weren’t able to exchange information. They had forgotten to realize the overall impact on people.

2 – Engagement

Berman and Duffy also emphasized the need for engagement with people to test assumptions in order to streamline communication. At the City of Chicago, they worked hard to engage with residents about cameras being placed around the city to collect data. The city team made an assumption that most people would be wary of their image and activity being collected and used by the city.

When they spoke with residents, however, they learned something quite different. People were actually open to and supportive of the cameras as long as there was transparency. People wanted to see what the cameras could see. Berman and her team focused on sharing information and they had a positive project launch.

3 – Iteration

As private sector companies know well, success is often dependent upon rapid prototyping, which is a cost effective method to get achieve an optimal design. Cities are newer to this concept but are steadily applying some of the principles. Berman states that this philosophy applies to policies as well as “city systems.”

“It requires patience to bring residents and even internal city staff to the center of the work you do,” says Berman. “But start with people who get it. Create examples and show them how it can work.” There can be entrenched resistance, but with the right leadership in place, things can begin to change.”

What’s Next?
At the conclusion of the discussion, Duffy stated, “CIOs come and go but agency staff is forever. It’s important to maintain enthusiasm during a long project, which requires balancing the quick wins and incremental progress.”  By implementing the notions of empathy, engagement and iteration, cities can concentrate more on what people need and how to deliver it to them through a delightful instead of painful process.

There is no better time for cities to adopt this customer-centric mindset.  People are used to having curated information instantly at their fingertips. The competition for attention is intense in this constantly connected world. And people respond to cities that meet their needs. High-speed Internet connections have enabled people to work remotely and so they can live from anywhere. The choice of a city as a lifestyle has never been greater.

Technology provides the ability to deliver city services with greater efficiency and effectiveness. This combined with a focus on the end user is at the heart of the smart city movement and focus on creating a more connected, more intuitive and ultimately more enjoyable urban experience.

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