Can’t Afford a Chief Digital Officer? Here’s How to Fake It.

Dec 18, 2014 12:30 PM ET
Campaign: Community News

Originally posted on Governing 

By Paul Winn, executive vice president and general manager, Recyclybank 

Affordable technology is providing new ways for governments with limited resources to improve their services and engage with residents.

Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia have been hiring chief digital officers to tap technology to create more efficient processes and happier citizens. Not every local government has the resources to institutionalize innovation through a centralized CDO's office, but there are other effective ways to accomplish much the same thing.

The rise and affordability of technology has brought accessibility to strategies such as easy-to-administer online programs, tools and educational resources to help foster conversation and bring more "community" to communities. And governments do not have to go it alone. Many of these programs can be implemented through public or private partnerships, taking much of the burden of implementation and planning off of government staff.

Here are three examples that illustrate affordable tactics -- digital tools, incentives and access to information -- that when implemented even on a basic level can help encourage and enable citizens to work collaboratively with government and each other:

Digital tools: Philadelphia instituted a variety of digital tools to open the lines of government-citizen communication. One example is the city's enhancement of its 311 call center with a Twitter account and a mobile application, Philly311, which automated service requests, increased civilian access to city officials and improved the delivery process for issues and solutions.

The relevance of these additional features grew by leaps and bounds when the city was in crisis during Hurricane Sandy. During the storm, the Philly311 Twitter handle gained 2,000 followers across the city in almost every neighborhood. Following the storm, the city received more than 700 service requests involving everything from power outages to fallen trees. By creating open, active lines of communication, Philadelphia enabled citizen collaboration throughout the city. In turn, city staff members were able resolve issues more quickly and ultimately got people the help they needed in a shorter time frame.

Incentives: Citizens are looking for ways to get involved and make their communities better. Sometimes they just need an extra push. In 2012, Recyclebank (for which I am general manager) partnered with SC Johnson to launch the SC Johnson Green Choices Recycling Challenge, a nationwide consumer-action initiative designed to incentivize waste reduction. Fifty communities across the U.S. competed in an effort to generate the highest reported recycling-participation rate.

The city of Lake Station, Ind., reported that the second month of its participation in the program saw the collection of 27 more tons of recyclables than in the same month of the previous year. Not only did this type of positive change have significant environmental benefits, but it also impacted municipal finances through disposal cost savings and revenues from the sale of recyclables.

Access to Information: Inspired by mass-transit websites and applications such as HopStop and Embark that rely on open data, Boston, in partnership with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, decided to make real-time transportation data from the MBTA available online and though mobile applications.

Not only did this make travel easier for residents, but it also helped local businesses, which began engaging with the data in ways that doubled as marketing efforts. Some businesses, for example, filled outdoor signs and chalkboards with messages akin to "You have 10 minutes until your train. Stop in for a cup of coffee!" The basis of this project's success is that residents felt connected to and informed about a vital city service.

It doesn't take a whole new government department to effect positive change. Small changes toward a more collaborative, engaging environment through technology, incentives and information transparency can help local governments significantly improve their processes. Investments in programs and tools that drive residents to get involved or support them when they need it most have long-term return.