impact of mobile on local government

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How mobile impacts local government communications

America’s online behavior has changed dramatically since 2007 when the first iPhone fueled mass smartphone adoption and made it easy for average citizens to stay connected to the Internet anywhere, anytime. Today, according to the latest Pew Research, nearly two thirds of Americans own a smartphone -- and 10 percent do not have any other form of high-speed Internet access at home. Mobile usage marked a new milestone in early May when Google reported that more searches are being made on mobile devices than on personal computers in the United States and nine other countries around the world. 

Acknowledging and making the changes necessary to accommodate these trends is the job of every public sector leader. Ready or not, mobile government soon will be a de facto mandate for communicators at all levels of government. Now that Google has overhauled its search-recommendation system to favor websites that are easier to read and load on smartphones, the need is even more urgent. And local government leaders who fail to act may find that their communications systems are obsolete.

A North America-wide online survey of local government IT and communications professionals commissioned by Vision Internet in December 2014 revealed that only about half of respondents have mobile-ready websites. That leaves many municipalities challenged to play catch up with the digital communications habits of their citizens.

“Citizen convenience” was almost unanimously cited as the biggest benefit of mobile citizen service. “Expanded communications reach” and “time/human resource savings” followed in second and third place, respectively.

As one survey respondent from North Carolina wrote, “People want to communicate and work with government using the same tools they do in their personal and business lives. It’s about using the tools they are comfortable with, and doing so in a quick and convenient manner.”

However, the survey showed that harnessing the value of digital communications does present challenges to today’s government professionals. When asked to identify the biggest obstacles to mobile citizen service, survey respondents cited the lack of available funding (70 percent), security concerns (56 percent) and usability challenges (54 percent).

Making the shift is not as daunting as it may seem. Facilitating the transition are government website developers who have created powerful content management systems (CMS) that transform static websites into digital communications powerhouses, which easily can be updated in-house to keep content fresh and useful. The top government website developers have already incorporated responsive web design into their advanced CMS, ensuring that visitors can easily view and navigate a site regardless of what device they are using. The interactive nature of advanced CMS makes it easy for people to do business online wherever and whenever they choose.

As a result, municipal websites, social media, mobile gov and other digital communications tools are helping municipal and county governments become more accessible, convenient, interactive and transparent for the people they serve.

Palm Bay, Florida’s website now serves as a digital city hall, with social media feeds, surveys, feedback forms and online request forms. An online road survey, for example, garnered 759 responses and, in the first year after launching the new site, the city received a total of 1,674 online requests for service.

Palm Bay Web Administrator Stacy LaVanture said the site’s biggest value has been its responsive design and how it has enhanced the City’s ability to engage with the community. “More than a third of visitors now access our site through mobile devices; that’s a 74 percent increase compared to this time last year,” she said.

Launched in 2014, the revamped site now has more than 4,800 registered users who can now manage their e-news, submit business listings to the site’s small business directory, manage service requests and more.

The digital-savvy community of West Hollywood, Calif. recently relaunched its mobile site with an app-like design. Additionally, the West Hollywood official city app is a free download for smartphone users, and includes a variety of features and functions to help connect West Hollywood residents and businesses to City Hall. The app’s service request tool, which is front-and-center on the app interface, allows people to quickly and easily report issues ranging from potholes to graffiti and abandoned items. Requests not marked “private” by users are mapped so that other visitors can monitor issues and fixes. The service request area also provides links to business licensing, water conservation, animal control, trash and recycling.

The cost of investing in advanced website technology with responsive design varies based on the size of the community and scope of information required to meet each community’s needs. Return on investment can be measured both in real savings and intangible benefits to city leaders and citizens. Mobile-ready digital communications can reduce the need and cost of printed materials and enable citizen self service, which can saves staff time. Other benefits include operational efficiencies and the enhanced opportunities for economic development that come from making community information more accessible to wireless customers.

Brett White, West Hollywood digital media coordinator, reports that 41 percent of website traffic now comes in via mobile devices, up from 27 percent just 10 months ago. The site averages 275,000 mobile sessions per year, of which 61 percent are first time visitors. The new design, coupled with the ability to fully edit the mobile homepage through the CMS, directs smartphone users to the mobile-friendly web content.

“It’s extremely valuable to us to be able to separate our mobile site from the desktop site,” White said. “Each is optimized for completely different audiences.”  

It’s clear that America’s appetite for mobile information has moved the needle on digital local government from ‘because we can’ to ‘because we must.’

Interactive websites, mobile technology and social media are helping to increase citizen participation and fostering greater accountability of government at all levels. Doing so is key to fulfilling local government’s role as civil servants and delivering greater value to constituents.

About the Author

Ashley Fruechting is senior director of marketing for Vision, a government website design, development and hosting firm.

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