Can Government Improve Its Image?

Restoring trust in government

The growing distrust and poor image associated with government continue. As a result, I see citizens asking more and more questions of their government and wanting leaders to hear their voices. The citizens I hear are speaking loudly and growing in number. They want to know how their tax dollars are being allocated. They want to find out if corruption in a neighboring jurisdiction is also happening in their backyards. In the absence of effective government forums, disruptive apps are providing a place for these citizens to communicate with each other.

On the other hand, there are those who question whether the need is real. Colleagues have said to me, “Citizens really do not want to participate in government. They elect individuals to take care of their communities so they do not have to think about it.” Others add that citizen engagement is a nuisance that will increase workloads and raise expectations. These same groups view soliciting public input as providing more ways for citizens to complain.

Perhaps I am becoming tainted by the company I have been keeping lately, but the reality is that citizens want to know whether government is going to be there when and where they want to interact. Diminishing is the notion that government can get by with merely communicating information to citizens without providing an effective way for them to respond. Delivering transparency, accountability, and engagement to citizens can provide an opportunity to restore trust in government; however, that no longer means just hiring someone to do the job. Instead, it is about providing the opportunity for others to validate or comment when the need arises or a passion is stirred. Worldwide, governments are grappling with how to achieve this openness.

It is clear that there are many options, ranging from information websites to town hall meetings to social media, that can be used to meet the demand for more transparency and accountability. The question becomes, “Which is the most effective?” Even with all these choices, governments are turning to the GIS technology that they have had in their organizations for years. Governments in places such as Singapore, Boston, New York, Corpus Christi, and San Francisco have seen great success and proved that citizens respond positively to location-centric civic engagement apps because they show how government activity relates to people in their communities. GIS provides a transparent solution that engages citizens, demonstrates accountability, and fosters collaboration. However, we are beginning to see a bit of a slowdown as the process becomes more bureaucratic.

The proof and technology exist to create a more open government, however, the debate continues.

Can GIS bridge the gap between government agencies that are reluctant to open up and citizens that want to participate?

Chris Thomas

About Chris Thomas

Chris Thomas is the global manager for government activities at Esri. He has worked in and with government agencies worldwide for over 22 years. He is viewed as a pioneer and thought leader in the adaptation of technology by government and citizens alike.
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11 Comments

  1. Sean McGrath says:

    I do not think it is overstating things to say that the growing distrust and poor image associated with government you mention, is the most critical issue facing western democracies in the early 21st century.

    I also do not think it is over-stating things to say that the future of everything from neighborhood safety to education resourcing is going to be heavily based on GIS. The technology is now at the point where geographic-oriented problems are readily addressed by geographic-oriented IT solutions in very user friendly and cost-effective ways. If providing this sort of service effectively and cheaply is the goal, then it is necessary to factor in GIS.

    The private sector is galloping relentlessly forward, building a GIS-based future that our kids will most definitely live in. The private sector is also galloping forward into areas that some would see as the proper domain of government. However, if government finds itself ill-equipped to “compete,” market forces will surely take their course. GIS is thus raising profound questions about the nature of government. What informational service should the government provide and what should be left to the private sector? What data should be gathered by Government and who should have access to it to provide services? What does it really mean to be a “citizen” versus being a “customer” in an increasingly online world?

    Rather than ask if GIS can help governments improve their image, I would ask the stronger question: will governments have any image worth saving unless they become GIS-focused in the short- to medium-term? Look at the breathless speed at which smartphones, tablets, and social networking applications are adopting GIS. Look at the incredible up-take of GIS-based services by young adults and the high bar that private sector GIS-services set in terms of customer satisfaction.

    The voting citizens of the near future will be very GIS-savvy. GIS is not just the latest technology fad. It is becoming nothing less than a completely new way in which people think about and interact with their world: and includes their government.

  2. Absolutely. In fact, manifestations of this quality abound with agencies who are taking a position of leadership and responsibility across the globe.

    Take our industry for example – with respect to land use permitting, community planning, & regulatory compliance, we are witnessing an uptick in the adoption of our GIS-integrated applications and extensions designed to assist and empower agencies to become more transparent and more responsive – from citizen collaboration to location-based social networking feeds that integrate GIS with governmental data (ex: @Marcoisland_FL), this pattern is trending for agencies positioning to create opportunities for positive and effective citizen collaboration.

    And rightfully so; GIS establishes a common ground between public sector officials and civic-minded consumers by providing an equitable (and impartial) platform for information exchange and collaborative engagements. From optimizing situational awareness and data visualization capabilities to crowd-sourcing, social networking and grassroots initiatives, GIS and its respective role as a facilitative agent in civic engagement has never been better positioned.

    The tools for effective collaboration are readily available – the question is, will agencies build the bridge or burn it?

  3. First, let’s broaden the question to: Can government improve its image through improved service to the citizen?

    The answer is simple: Yes. The challenging part is: How? The challenge many government agencies are facing is how, when, and where to reach their constituents to share available information. On any given day within the GovLoop community, there are multiple discussions and forums where members are looking for efficient ways to better share information and data with the public. The common thread in these discussions is there is no single solution. Lessons learned suggest that focus gets quickly fragmented between websites, mobile apps, in-person services, coupled with who owns the process, and you can start to see quickly why this remains a challenge. One way to cut through the challenges is to focus on the message first and the delivery vehicle second. Ask yourself what are the information needs of our constituents – then focus on how best to craft that message. This is where GIS can be an asset to most agencies.

    GIS offers agencies a unique communication tool that can provide information to the citizen that is targeted, graphical and data rich. It can help solve the communication challenge of: “What does this mean to me?” Location based data and the accompanying commentary is a useful way to engage the citizens that want to be informed and it also arms them with usable information that can be mobilized in their communities. The resulting information can be implemented into websites, pushed out via mobile apps, and also used in many other formats as needed. In the end, good government customer service is about providing important information in a timely, relevant manner that is readily accessible.

    The old saying that all politics are local still holds true. Through GIS, government customer service can also be truly local.

  4. Barry Waite says:

    Let’s face it, it is easy to work in any job and take care of tasks without feeling any connection to those we are serving. It isn’t good, it’s just easy. On the other hand, we can create a partnership with our residents and business people by providing them tools to help each other. The key is in keeping that contact productive. We don’t need more ways for people just to complain. We need more ways for them to provide input – and get a response. We need a good feedback loop to make that positive.

    It does not mean all input will be positive. It does mean all input will be handled positively. We have a Facebook page for our business development office. We get all kinds of comments, mainly good but some not. We reply to them and make a good effort to answer the issues that arise. In over a year, we have only had to remove one comment that was not appropriate to the page.

    So how does GIS fit in? With the advent of location-aware cell phones and other devices, it has gotten very easy for citizens to instantaneously point out problems. That’s great! People not only feel more connected, they truly are more connected. That is to say they are connected if there is a response. It can be as simple as “We received your inquiry and will get back to you this week. Please let us know if this is an immediate safety hazard.” The benefit is not only to them but also to those on the other end of the channel. They feel like their work matters to someone and their efforts are appreciated.

    It will take work in building systems with those feedback loops. It’s worth it.

  5. Steve Spiker says:

    There are so many opportunities in this space, but as with most opportunities the governments who can demonstrate real leadership and who value engagement will be the main beneficiaries. Governments who mistakenly lock down their data and attempt to charge taxpayers huge sums for access to public information will lose out here in a big way, and it will be interesting to see how the opengov and opendata movements can budge certain cities/counties from their arcane data charging policies where PRA/FOIA has fallen flat.
    The spatial data production and collection that has been accelerated over the past decade has resulted in so much rich data held within government databases, and form past experience GIS analysts will use it for some valuable, sensible tasks. But when we see just how excited and innovative regular citizens can be once they get access to some of those public data it really blows the expectations of most of us out of the water. using GIS to manage government resources is obvious and important, but also pretty boring. using GIS data to engage people in discussion, in crowd sourced data cleaning and validation and in creatively thinking up new apps and approaches to using this data is very powerful, and exciting.
    Cities out front of this are benefiting already, on both the value of the new apps being built on top of opened city data and through deeper engagement with very interested and talented developers, hackers and urbanism fans. Code for America is a very visible and intentional example of what this can result in and lead to, as are the numerous CityCamps occurring around the world.
    Our well educated workforce is actually rather interested in civic matters and in ways they can help and get involved. Data may seem rudimentary to many back room analysts across the globe but those data also hold the key to better engagement, accountability, transparency and innovation.
    And for next to no capital investment.

  6. Jason Kiesel says:

    The connected world created by the internet, via blogs, social media, and mobile apps has created an environment where everyone can easily be an active participant and/or publisher. We can now interact with individuals and corporations both local and globally. Citizens have grown accustomed to easily interacting with neighbors, strangers across the globe, and companies of all sizes and locale, via our computers and smart devices.

    Citizens want, and increasingly expect, to engage and participate with government in the same manner. By neglecting this connected population, governments may be inadvertently shutting themselves off from constituents. Foursquare, Google Places, Yelp, and the list goes on of private entities which have grown exponentially on the desire of individuals to contribute. Governments can also utilize technology to harness this immanent desire to be contributor. Municipalities could create amazing systems where citizens could both input information and then organize locally around community improvement projects.

    Essentially, governments could shift away from merely delivering services and instead serve as a conduit, coordinating ordinary citizens interested in making meaningful impacts at the local level. The municipalities which can effectively harness this information in collaborative forum will create progressive communities, and will do so in a resource-efficient manner.

  7. Greg Babinski says:

    Every day, negative stories appear in the media about local government mismanagement, waste, and failure to deliver vital services that residents expect. Those of us who work in local government know that instances of real mismanagement are very rare. However, we also know that valid cases result in justifiable outrage on the part of constituents.

    Local media and opposition politicians can easily harness citizen skepticism about the effectiveness of municipal agencies, by taking a kernel of truth to create a compelling headline for the evening news (‘Transit Operators Earn More than $100K with Overtime’) or an effective but negative campaign message (‘A vote for me is a vote to end chauffeur salaries for City bus drivers!’).

    Those of us who manage local agency programs of course know that we carefully analyze the most cost-effective means to deliver municipal services. For example, if anyone asks, there is very likely a detailed analysis to explain why it is a bargain to expand our bus service via overtime; even if that means that some drivers earn more than $100K. To share our reasoning is to be, by definition, ‘transparent’. But after-the-fact transparency is too little, too late to change citizens’ broad negative image of government.

    What is an alternate approach? Instead of being reactive, what if municipalities were proactive in providing public access to the studies, reports, and analysis used to implement, monitor, and manage their services and programs? Local agency GIS might be an appropriate area to implement such a policy.

    Many local agency GIS operations already make their data easily available to the public. Among other things, this open data sharing facilitates ‘Public Participation GIS’ (PPGIS) which puts the data that agencies use for their decisions into the hands of activists, community groups, developers, and businesses.

    But what if we included citizens in every step of our decision making process? In many agencies GIS is being used to inform citizens of the budget and service implications of various program changes. This might range from using GIS to display the locations of possible public works capital projects to indicating the service reduction implications of closing a park, a clinic, or a fire station in response to budget limitations. GIS could even explain the alternatives we considered in ensuring that our transit service covered as broad a geographic area as possible, even if this meant leveraging the overtime option to achieve the goal.

    An ideal future would have citizens engage their government agencies with GIS – in a collaborative, informed process. If we invite citizens to be observers and contributors to the process – to the degree that effective management will allow – we can change the image of government.

    What if our GIS websites not only featured the typical web mapping applications, along with stock zoning, land use, and planning maps, but also examples of GIS analysis for planning, public works, parks, and police that the typical GIS office performs for municipal clients? In most jurisdictions, citizens have the right to these types of public documents. Why not be proactive and make them available online as a matter of routine?

    What if our municipal GIS held open evening training sessions to teach citizens how to leverage GIS data and online mapping tools to better understand their government agency and the challenges facing it? Citizens who understand and share in the decision making process will change their image of government from the perceived domain of sometimes incompetent insiders to an environment where competent managers openly collaborate with citizens in the decisions that impact their communities.

  8. Greg- good thoughts. And there are a number of cities where GIS teams and others are doing just that. The trick with much of this civic innovation space is how we scale this to every municipality across the country/globe! In the Bay Area we have one pro-active city/county, out of many. We need to encourage, cajole, inspire the other government analysts to become leaders and not just GIS geeks. They can do and enable so much if they and the senior IT folks step up and turn government into a platform to encourage innovation and engagement.

  9. Dawn Robbins says:

    Thank you for this interesting discussion. I am a GIS consultant working at several local government agencies in lieu of a GIS Manager. I have responsibility for GIS operations under IT.

    My experience is that GIS can absolutely bridge the gap between citizens and their government. It is the simple power of maps and map apps, bringing the significance of a particular issue down to the level of “what it means to ME”. Whether the issue is bus routes, gang violence, new garbage pick up routes, fire response – citizens want their maps and they want them clear, colorful and easy to understand. Go GIS.

    Now lets talk reality. In one jurisdiction that I’m involved in, the City Council cancelled translation services at city functions due to the extra cost. How’s that for transparency? Yes, come and be involved, but you better speak our language fluently. In this same location, I’m repeatedly told not to allow a particular map to become public. Exactly how much ‘GIS leadership’ can I show here? Enough to get me fired maybe?

    My point is not to complain. Things change over time as citizens start to realize what is happening. Maps and data do eventually get out there, somehow. Just remember that some of us are already fighting every day just to get a map on the city website. Citizen participation is a great idea. The technology is not the issue in many places…it’s the fear of our so-called “leaders”. Let’s not be naive about what’s holding us back.

    Thanks again, I’m sure I will reread this column many times over the next few month to get inspired.

  10. Yes government can improve its image through the use of GIS. Primarily, it becomes a critical method of providing information in a way that it can be easily consumed and understood by the public. GIS can also improve government image by operationalizing GIS such that it is used to make the best decisions during daily emergency operations and at an even higher level during a catastrophic event.

    Operationalizing GIS can create the quickest and most impressive data interoperability model with and between different jurisdictions and all levels of government simultaneously. Also making critial information (road closures, damaged areas and life saving instructions) available to the public also creates a way to engage the public in meaningful ways. At the end of the day, the proper use of GIS will help to improve efficiencies in the areas of emergency planning, response, mitigation and recovery and enhance a community’s resilience.

    It is an exciting time and Charlottesville, VA in cooperation with the Commonwealth of VA is working on doing just that. Stay tuned.

  11. MARK WIYGUL says:

    Government increasingly plays a role communicating to the public through GIS. Data and Statistics are galvanized into maps and spoon fed to hungry mouths. Special Interests and Commercial ventures increasingly utilize these tools with their own well being in mind rather than focusing on the needs necessarily of the recipient of the statistics, just as in commercially advertised media. As a result the public expresses their displeasure through increasingly available mediums such as social networks.

    We, each of us as individuals, are increasingly looking for information to be broadcast to us, For Us, for society. GIS can become a powerful tool, for each of us. It’s already a powerful tool for them, for commercial ventures and interests, to broadcast the information they need us to know, which in turns allows us to know what they need us to know.

    I encourage each of us to join effort as individuals to form better ways to socially network, figure out what information we as individuals need to know, and broadcast GIS data that is beneficial to us, to society. In the great many cases the needs of special interests and commercial ventures match up with our own needs, for societies needs in general, if not immediately then in the longterm. But there can be conflicts, sometimes serious.

    Within our professional lives, each of us is one of ‘them’ at a great many times whenever we broadcast for the purpose of the organization we belong to, and encouragingly this is mostly for the better of society in the long run. But we also need to recognize that we belong to another organization that should have a strong voice, our society. Just as a diet can’t exist solely on one thing, so too our intellectual diets should not exist solely on commercially broadcast information.

    There are times we need to take off our paid broadcasters cap and speak to each other with societies cap, networking socially, with the recipient of the information also the intended beneficiary, without any conflicting interests. If not, we may wake up one day, look at an online map, and discover that our cities and treasures were sold off as landfills and cesspools.

    We will research and backtrack to find out why, that ‘They’ caused it all to happen. When we backtrack to find out who ‘They’ actually are, we will then discover that ‘we’ did it to ourselves, while perusing the goals we each individually are paid to pursue and broadcast. And we did it by intentionally keeping ourselves unaware for that no conflict would ever arise between that which we are paid to pursue and broadcast and that which society would benefit from. We did it by way of only listening to information from only other commercially broadcast mediums so that we would remain unaware of conflicts, and guilt free. We did it by only contributing back knowledge to those same information networks, the traffic flow always being routed from above.

    Commercial media is a healthy and profitable asset to a modern society. It’s the engine which provides our prosperity. Each individual needs to be educated to understand that their are other required forms of broadcasting information to maintain the health of a modern society. The consequences of total intellectual dependence upon it are, I believe, grim.

    We need to know this in the same way that humankind very slowly learned (as an analogy) that yes, “food is good”, but there is a limit to how much to eat and to not always eat just because the seller broadcasts, “eat more of these chips and candy bars and soda-pop because they are the tasty way to enjoy your prosperity”.

    Instead we need to listen to our Mom and Dad when they broadcast, “eat some of these vegetables we grew in our garden for you, because they are good for you”.

    There is a stark contrast: commercial media frequently broadcasts for its own sake. Non Commercial media (your friends and family etc) broadcasts to you for Your sake, because they actually do know you and care about You. When your Mom calls, she isn’t telling you something because she has an agenda to push, besides that of You.

    Today we understand that obesity decreases health. Yesterday folks understood the more food the healthier one gets. Tomorrow we need to understand, by the same token, that a commercial/political venture broadcasting for instance, 20 minutes of information to convince the recipient that they now KNOW the stakes of Global Warming and the scientific frameworks that its foundations rest, and that they need to vote and use their personal clout to promote the message, because scientists are conflicted with political motivations while the politicians commercial ventures paying for broadcasting the message isn’t, and that they themselves certainly have no conflicting interests.

    This could be the ultimate form of using information for manipulative purposes. GIS uses of the future need to be educated to guard against it.

    Within a Republican form of Government, with Democratically elected officials, we the people elect experts who spend their entire lives focusing on the problems at hands in the hopes they can filter out the information they need. GIS will become a powerful bulwark for better and worse. Each of us has our own individual areas of expertise and hardly have time to dive into other areas, and when we do spend a few minutes here or there educating ourselves we need to guard against being manipulated into thinking we know better than say, a scientist who spent the last decade of her life studying and researching the information, or a government official who spends their entire life supposedly researching what’s best for our society, but instead we listen to 30 second ads on memorandums to vote for on election day but are only influenced by friends and family who had their opinions formed by the same, and perhaps listened to programming or read articles from others who’s knowledge on the matter rests on the foundations of the same, though opinionated it may be.

    While each of us remains busy with our own lives, we barely have time to become experts in each and every field that requires a vote of judgment at the ballot box, or leveling our clout in the playing field of opinions we share with family, friends and others.

    A Republic of Democratically elected officials needs a foundation where the voters recognize that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “He who knows best knows what he doesn’t know”, and as a result votes for officials they trust to spend their lives finding the correct information and the correct people to analyze it. We hardly have the time to become better experts than someone who invests their life in specific areas of expertise needed to make societal judgment calls. But we do have just enough time to listen to mediums that convincingly allow us to think that know not only just as much, but perhaps more.

    The other day I watched an ad I’ve seen a dozen or more times on TV for a prescription medication that announced to not try and play the role of the doctor, since she is the expert in that field, you are the expert in your field. Instead, the recipient of this commercially broadcasted information hears a message announcing that they should go to the doctor and ask if this medicine is right for them. They will then hope that they can get the medication from the doctor (after first accessing for themselves if they want it or not). All prescription medications broadcast the message to go to the doctor to discuss getting it, because that’s the only way they will be able to purchase the product. The same medications, once it becomes Over The Counter, encourages the recipient of the message to go directly and get it, without consultation. As a society, we frequently discourage others from being critical of broadcasted messages because each of us is smart enough to recognize manipulation and reject it as necessary. But when we are told not to be critical of the message the implication is that we shouldn’t even attempt to recognize it. As a result, even though we are smart enough to reject manipulation, instead we feed off of it then broadcast it to others as fact.

    commercially broadcasted information could be to us what lead drinking glass potentially brought to the Roman Empire: a slow stupefying affect, unnoticeable to each generation as it grows worse, and with each generation progressively contributing even more to the stupefying process.

    Generations ago broadcasting information for the benefit of the recipient was the norm. But today, from the time of infancy forming the very foundations of our language skills, we intake and consume information directed to us in the form of “For Your Information”, from commercially broadcast mediums.

    GIS has become a powerful tool; its snowballing into an ever large roll in commercially broadcast mediums. We need to make sure each of us has a hand in broadcasting our message to fellow friends and family members, because clearly when we do, we communicate to them for their own sake.

    Within a healthy Republic of Democratically elected officials, Social Activism isn’t a method of Government, rather Government is a method of Social Activism. Lets disseminate GIS to help out the folks we care about and create a healthy balance in our diet of knowledge. Lets all remember to take off our Paid-For Organizations cap and put on the cap of the other organization we belong to, the cap of Our Society.

    Have a nice day, Thank You – a consumer of public knowledge – GIS Associate II