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How digital government systems encourage repeat users

Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo credit: Heydrienne via Creative Commons

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County and municipal governments that offer reliable and trustworthy digital experiences are more likely to make their constituents repeat users, lowering costs and increasing revenues in the process, officials say.

In a symposium held Wednesday by PayIt, a contractor that offers local governments a digital platform to accept online payments, Canadian government leaders in Toronto and Vancouver said they had found success in using platforms that emphasize connectivity and simplicity.

“If officials can obtain buy-in from the citizens, you will build loyalty and trust with your base,” said Ron Boaz, Vancouver’s manager of digital channels. “The key is to build user design in the same way Amazon and Google do.”

In February, Toronto officials rolled out a new digital payment platform, MyToronto Pay, that allows residents to pay property tax and utility bills in a secure way.

“Introducing MyToronto Pay is one more way we are transforming and improving access to City services,” Mayor John Tory said in a statement. “Even through the pandemic, the City has continued to rapidly evolve and digitize service deliver to provide residents, businesses and visitors access to services where and how they wish to access them.”

“Toronto vibing with the 21st Century!” city council member Paul Ainslie tweeted in reply.

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About a quarter of Americans say most of their interactions with government are through digital channels, according to William Eggers, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. That share grew substantially during the pandemic.

“We really were catapulted into a whole new era during the pandemic,” Eggers said. “We still have a long way to go in terms of digital services.”

City officials who use the PayIt system said they found success putting on their “resident hat,” examining the interaction between citizens and government through their constituents’ eyes. Boaz said his constituents wanted a better search experience and a single login for all of their interactions with government.

“We have been moving to people-centric applications since 2018. By looking at the front and back end, we can focus on customer experience for the residents,” said Cielo Medel, the chief information officer of Mississauga, a city of 800,000 residents in Ontario.

Simple, off-the-shelf systems that prioritize the user experience can aid governments in prompting residents to pay bills or take action — a method behavioral economists call the nudge effect.

In St. Louis, residents received a “nudge” email from an elected official reminding them to pay their property tax bills.

It’s always helpful to get those little nudges,” said Jack Laskowitz, vice president of client success at PayIt. “Finding ways to do that with your constituency isn’t a hinderance, but it’s actually a service.”

Some governments have built trust with constituents by offering accessible and inclusive services, from free internet access to multilingual options and access crafted for the disabled.

“Maybe we need to go out to communities to speak with them, seeing if there are language or vision barriers,” Boaz said of Vancouver, where nearly half of residents speak a language other than English at home. “These can help bring services to residents.”

Medel said her city’s technology has continued to evolve, a crucial step necessary to meeting residents’ expectations. Officials considering adopting new technology should ask vendors to continually improve services while ensuring security and expanding a user’s digital footprint.

In Vancouver, officials promoted that expanded footprint by introducing a universal health card, and then adding new services. In the United States, at least 13 states have adopted digital driver’s licenses that can be displayed on a mobile phone; another 15 states are piloting or rolling out their own digital ID programs.

The evolution of the internet of things — or IoT — has put added pressure on governments to adapt, in ways that promote sustainability and cut costs.

“Thinking evergreen is critical,” said Medel. Internet of things devices in her city are used for public transport and to improve services and processes, she said.

— Laura Plaia is a freelance editor and writer based in Alexandria, Va.