4 traits of effective leaders in digital government

Published on 04 November 2019

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An interview with Luke Norris

Luke Norris, Managing Director of Strategy & Government Relations at OpenCities, has been an integral part of the digital government movement for nearly 10 years. During this time, he’s delivered 21st Century Principles of Digital Government to the US Conference of Mayors and has been invited to speak with the African American Mayors Association, National Association of Counties and Harvard’s Kennedy School

According to Norris, "Digital government can streamline how government leaders deliver and measure policy, plus it can have a scalable impact on how cities serve better." He also notes that moving government to modern SaaS platforms can reduce staff workload, eliminate tedious daily tasks, and save governments money down the road by not having to rebuild technology to keep up with a modern user experience.

Effective leaders have recently worked with Norris to transform their local government websites and provide digital services to their residents. Recently, he reflected on what makes these leaders effective in digital government and came up with four traits they all share.

1. They build trust.

In Grand Rapids, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss ran her campaign on the promise of making it easier for residents to interact with government. She made a commitment and followed it through with a new city website, powered by  OpenCities. This new site includes over 257 online services and reduces walk-ins at customer service counters. It was built with data collected from engaging with residents to find out what they needed from a city website. Moving to a digital government platform allowed Grand Rapids to save over 3 times the cost of the new site within just 9 months. Mayor Bliss built trust by engaging with the residents of Grand Rapids and keeping her promise to deliver digital government to her community. 

2. They hire teams with digital know how.

User interface (UI) design and user experience (UX) play a large part in the success of digital government. In Norris’s experience, leaders who work with experienced UI/UX teams are more successful in launching better digital services and seeing a big return. On average, most city websites have 10,000+ visitors a day. If these visitors can’t find what they are looking for or aren’t able to interact with the site, customer service levels suffer. Hiring a team that understands these standards and UI/UX will not only help create a successful website launch, but also can help change culture inside City Hall.  Norris said he’s seeing more and more teams shift the conversation internally from “what should it look like?” to “how does this help our users?”

The City of Orlando knew that increasing website satisfaction and engagement required someone with experience in UX, UI and product management. This person also needed to be agile enough to help lead their digital transformation. Leveraging talents outside City Hall, the city recruited Matt Broffman who built a team with deep expertise in applying technology to challenges and solving problems. This decision not only supported the rollout of various projects, but also reshaped how others in City Hall approach technology, using concepts like user-centered design.

3. They focus on users.

Studies prove that residents visit city websites to accomplish a goal. City websites are more than just fancy community newsletters; they provide customer service. Effective leaders look at what residents are and aren’t doing on their websites. They commit to providing the services users want and look for new ways to go digital where they didn’t before. Some leaders, like Miami’s Chief Innovation Officer, Mike Sarasti, took it a step further. As a first step to redesigning the city's website, he launched an alpha site with only a fraction of the content and then encouraged residents to provide feedback. That feedback played a critical role in helping the team continue building and iterating upon what would become the city's new user-centered website.

 Focusing on users also includes optimizing for mobile. According to a recent survey, 1 in 5 US households access the internet through only mobile devices. Making government services available with a mobile-first approach is necessary in order to serve equitably. 

4. They start small.

Today, SaaS solutions enable governments to quickly stand up, test, modify and launch new digital services. Norris mentioned that he’s seeing more and more government RFPs asking for the ability to launch an Alpha or a Beta site. “This indicates that leaders are focused on starting small and testing with real users. Effective leaders are getting away from building technology for months or years simply to find out it doesn’t work for residents or isn’t easy to use.” He noted that approaches like this can help lead to better outcomes and protect cities’ investments in modern technology. “Starting small doesn’t mean that the project will never get done,” Norris added, “But rather it’s indicative of the fact that the project is more likely to get done right.” This concept is one that effective leaders in digital government are introducing to others. A great example of this approach was implemented by Centennial, CO. where the city launched a Beta website before the full website. As Centennial continued to release new content to its Beta site, user feedback was used to ensure the site worked when it fully launched.

Leaders come from everywhere, not just tech capitols like Austin, Seattle or San Francisco. Cities like Grand Rapids, Miami, Orlando and Centennial are pushing boundaries to make government more approachable for residents. Effective leadership and forward thinking have brought big returns and created platforms where people want to engage with their local governments in these cities.

Luke Norris is the Manager of Strategy and Government Relations for OpenCities, which provides local government with websites, intranets and forms to help them serve better. You can connect with him on LinkedIn. For more information on OpenCities solutions, visit OpenCities.com.


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