Why does government lag so far behind private business in the application of new technology to customer service, constituent service and government operations? Examples:
• At the City of Seattle, for example, you can pay bills with a credit card or bank account, but the City’s website won’t “remember” the information – each month and for each bill you have to completely enter all the information again.
• We print a million pages of utility bills (electricity, water, solid waste) and then mail them out each month, but there’s no option to receive bills electronically, as offered by most private utilities.
• You can watch a City Council meeting via www.seattlechannel.org and you can actually pull up and watch any City Council committee meeting since 2003 there as well. But, in this age of You Tube, you need to download Real Player software in order to watch our meetings!
• In an era when many private companies totally automate purchasing and hiring processes, City agencies still use paper documents and pen-and-ink signatures for most of this work.
Yet the City of Seattle is a leading adopter of technology, winning “best municipal web portal awards” in 2001 and 2006, and “top municipal TV station” in 2007. We are on the leading edge! Of government.
But clearly we’re NOT on the leading edge of what our customers and constituents use when dealing with their insurance companies, banks, and when they do their shopping on the web and Internet.
What gives with government’s apparent position on the “tailing” edge?
Well, first of all, we’re NOT on the “tailing” edge. Although many national or statewide private companies have robust retailing and transaction presence on the web, few mid-size or smaller businesses have much other than a “shopping cart”.
Next, we have to be careful. Damned careful. We are shepherds of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars. We have many “feet on the street” services to fund with those dollars – cops, firefighters, paramedics, parks, potholes, inspections, public health. We cannot afford costly experiments with technology. We need to let the private sector test and prove technologies. This also whets the appetite of consumers/constituents. Only then should we adopt new high tech. Plus, once a technology like web payments comes into mainstream use in banks and financial institutions, it will be cheaper for government to implement.
Finally, we have to be careful, damned careful. We are shepherds of personal information on hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people. You – the customer – have a choice of a bank or an insurance company. If you give such an institution your name, date of birth, social security number and credit card number, and they misuse it or lose it, not only must they make it right, but you can choose a different place to do business. Government is held to a much higher standard because it compels constituents to turn over their personal information. And constituents have a very powerful voice when their government makes mistakes: a little event called “re-election”.
I want the City of Seattle to be on the “leading edge” of the mainstream adopters of technology. NOT the cutting edge or bleeding edge. We’ll let large private businesses break the ice of new high tech, and we’ll follow right on their “tails”!
P.S. You-Tube video (also known as MPEG4 or “flash”) is coming to www.seattlechannel.org at the end of August. Electronic billing – replacing paper, retaining of bank accounts and credit card info is coming to the City of Seattle early in 2009.