If you had told me in 2019 that Kanye West would run for President, murder hornets would storm our shores, the Chicago Bears would beat the Tom-Brady-led Buccaneers, a global pandemic would shut down the planet, and legacy vendors were still running client card deposits through their own bank accounts…I would have been absolutely shocked because the Bears would definitely find a way to lose that game.
But here we are.
The dramatic economic and social impact of 2020 had massive implications for government. There are very few precedents for managing the sudden and dramatic increase in constituent reliance on government services. And there is no precedent for the challenge of administering new and existing government services in the environment created by the events of 2020.
The volume of jurisdictions, organizational structures, data systems, and procedures has created a complex “system of systems” that is approaching its critical limit. If we think of citizen requests as system inputs and service delivery as system outputs, it’s easy to identify recent breaches of critical limits.
The surge demand for unemployment benefits, exacerbated by a simultaneous policy change in the program itself, is one (extreme) example. While the pandemic has tested many “systems of systems” and increased the visibility of critical limit breaches, they were already a regular and growing occurrence.
System design is the problem and the solution
This is a nerdy way to describe the administration of a government service, but useful to make this point: system design is the problem. In our home state of Illinois, for example, the Unemployment Benefit Program sat upon an ancient batch processed database. Citing the outdated technology would be an easy explanation for systematic issues, but databases and batch processes are inherently simple and stable.
Instead, the real breakdowns were arguably rooted in the user experience the program provided. With multiple workflows across multiple agencies, asynchronous data validations, no user feedback loop, and the fact that no citizen is an Unemployment Benefit process expert, users were bound to feel lost. The tedious process left users feeling stressed, confused, and frustrated with government services during an already high-stress time.
Said another way: people had to find it, learn it, fill it out, find a second thing, learn that, fill that out, pray both were correct, wait an undefined amount of time, check their bank account, manage their disappointment, call for help, sit on hold, give up, manage their anxiety, put on a happy face, homeschool their kids, try to maintain their dignity, repeat. We can do better.
Fortunately, breakdowns in the user experience are also the easiest to correct. I would rather eat glass than rip out a mainframe running Cobol, and at CityBase we feel strongly that no one should have to do either. The faster, cheaper, safer approach is to decouple functionality, which in turn reduces dependency on the legacy system until there is nothing more than an archive of historic data. The first step is to drive a wedge between the user interfaces and the system of record for citizens and staff and create a more intuitive engagement layer.
Government experience should be centered on humans
This is an important milestone on the path to a future where government feels personalized and responsive — and programs are proactively delivered as fast as they are created.
A personalized and responsive government experience is built upon an authenticated user experience. This means that citizens will be able to log into a city account and review all of their obligations along with all the opportunities and programs available to them. In the same environment, they will be able to communicate with government agencies, eliminating the hassle of tracking down contact information. By offering a unified experience that houses constituents’ information, governments will be offering a service that reduces complexity for both users and staff.
Payments are the first step to improving user experience
The best, and possibly only, strategy to drive adoption of this authenticated account experience is to leverage the traffic generated by the most essential and compulsory interactions of government: payment.
Payment and its motivational friend, enforcement, drive people to their local government throughout the year. Governments should be capitalizing on these interactions as opportunities to seamlessly build the authenticated account experience.
By viewing each transaction as an opportunity to save a payment method, governments incentivize their customers to store personalized digital wallets. Each interaction offers the opportunity to configure recurring and electronic billing, which turns the wallet into a full profile — with stored preferences, linked assets, services a person cares about, and so on until constituents can see all their obligations in one place. This is the concrete, tangible, achievable milestone that payment can deliver.
We think the potential is simply illustrated by this example: In Marion County, Indiana, only 1 in 5 eligible households apply for and receive the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) utility bill subsidy, which the state administers through a network of community-based nonprofits. Yet the county and local utility interacts with all 5 of 5 eligible households throughout the year when accepting payments for obligations like electric bills with Indy Power and Light or traffic tickets with the County Clerk. At the moment of transaction, we know who they are, and the utility API has just provided their most current and reliable address.
There is a future where a local government never asks a citizen for data that already exists in an agency database, and where applying for a program is replaced by a simple opt-ins. That future is much closer than it appears.