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The Future of Digital Government: Q+A with Dr. Jonathan Reichental

A conversation with Dr. Jonathan Reichental, former CIO of Palo Alto, about the future of digital services and cities.

Our CEO, Tai Huynh, had the chance to sit down with Dr. Jonathan Reichental--former CIO for Palo Alto and current thought leader on the future of cities. In this Q+A, Dr. Reichental discusses everything from e-government and city customer experience to the future of work and technology in local government. 

Tai: 2020 brought a lot of change to every industry, but especially to the public sector. Citizens found themselves having to digitally interact with their local government for essential services and resources. Can you talk about how the year has changed the way local government views and does customer management/service? 

Dr. Reichental: Covid-19 and the restrictions it imposed has accelerated the digitalization of local government. While the migration to a higher degree of digital services was already underway for many agencies, 2020 moved plans forward and much greater progress was achieved than was anticipated. This is largely a good news story. Improving community experiences must be a priority. Digital doesn’t just deliver a more convenient way to engage with a government agency, but it can reduce the cost of delivery and increase the timeliness and accuracy of transactions. Finally, with in-person city meetings cancelled, virtual collaboration platforms have become the norm. While certainly convenient, support for online video, for example, has meant that in many instances more community members are participating. Perhaps one of the unanticipated positive outcomes of Covid-19 has been greater community engagement. That should make for healthier democracies in many of our local governments. Time will tell what sticks.

Tai: Zooming out, how do local governments interact with their residents/customers right now? How do you see that changing? What role is technology playing in this change?

Dr. Reichental: Up until Covid-19, in-person meetings were the most common form of community engagement. Some governments were experimenting with and supporting online collaboration. The urgency of alternatives to in-person meetings has resulted in the rapid and wide adoption of digital solutions. Video conferencing is now commonplace and it’s quite possible that for most agencies, it’s here to stay. More agencies are using digital newsletters and social media platforms. Many government websites are finally being upgraded and more people turn to online government as a way to get informed and provide feedback. Capturing the diversity of voices and opinions in communities has been a long time coming. The ease of participation that digital brings to the table may encourage deeper civic engagement in communities everywhere.

Tai: Why do you think the government is perceived as having the worst customer experience of any sector? What will it take to change that? 

Dr. Reichental: Well, sadly there’s truth to it. For so many people, interacting with their local government is a source of frustration and disappointment. Processes are often inefficient, systems are dated, and customer service is poor. Since a deep analysis of this topic is beyond the scope of a short interview, let’s just acknowledge that there is significant work to do in creating high-quality government experiences. It’s worth acknowledging the good work that has been done in cities all over the world. From Tallinn to Singapore, and from Dubai to Melbourne, many leaders have made improving government experiences a priority and they’re acting on it. There is greater investment in technology and training. There’s a realization that community expectations have changed and many expect to receive similar performance from local government as they do from a high-quality online retailer. Improving the government experience in more communities around the world is going to take leadership and vision from a new generation of leaders. It’s also going to require more education on what digital technologies can do to accelerate and deliver superior services. We’re headed in the right direction, but much more work is required and it’s going to take some time.

Tai: What does customer service mean to a local government for the future? What’s the role customer service plays in the way cities grow and develop?

Dr. Reichental: A growing number of communities are losing patience with their local governments. Expectations are much higher than they’ve ever been. It’s not possible to continue to deliver inefficient analog services in a world that is increasingly digital. Through cloud computing and the pervasiveness of smartphones, many new systems are easier to acquire and deploy and can quickly make a difference. The way government experiences are executed is becoming a reflection of culture. Slow, inefficient, uninspired solutions are likely telling of bigger issues. Conversely, those agencies who demonstrate innovation, agility, and open-mindedness to change and risk, suggest that their leaders are tuned into contemporary trends and community expectations. Smart and sustainable cities, those communities who will thrive in the 21st century, need leaders who are ready to embrace new ideas, new processes, and new technologies.

Tai: In the realm of citizen service or citizen experience management, what’s the most exciting thing for local governments and cities right now? The next big idea that will have a big impact on the way government works?

Dr. Reichental: Over the past ten years, I’ve personally been involved in and observed greater variety and velocity of new technologies being adopted in local government. Today, governments have many options for reinventing and delivering services. There’s plenty more room for further innovation and the best is yet to come. We’re at the beginning of a digital transformation in government. It’s been gratifying to see so many start-ups enter what we now call the govtech industry; using technology to improve government. A generation of motivated entrepreneurs are rethinking government experiences. They are doing well by doing good. Cloud computing has simplified implementation and deployment for agencies. It’s also helping to reduce the cost of technology and services. Smartphone apps have enabled greater convenience and streamlining. More agencies are recognizing the value of data too and using it to build better solutions and aid in data-driven decision-making. Soon, technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet-of-Things will have a greater role in creating improved government experiences.

Tai: You’ve created a lot of content across your very impressive, multi-sector career. What was the most fun you had creating a piece of content?  

Dr. Reichental: I recently wrote and published the bestseller, Smart Cities for Dummies. I wrote half of it before Covid-19 and the other half during the pandemic. Being quarantined at home in Northern California was convenient for durations of intense research and writing. I wasn’t sure how the book would unfold as I wrote it. I knew I had to capture the depth and breadth of the topic, but also bring my own personal experiences to the work. Fortunately, I was able to create a contribution to the smart city movement that makes me deeply proud. The book has been received well all over the world and is a must-have guide for anyone involved in building, managing, and maintaining cities. It might be called Smart Cities for Dummies, but it’s really a book for smart people who are motivated to build a more prosperous and higher quality of life for their communities.

You can learn more about my work, read my articles and watch my videos, and even request my services at: www.reichental.com

At Acta Solutions, we help local governments respond to citizen inquiries on digital services faster and easier. You can learn more about how we’re shaping the future of digital services on this site. Click schedule a consultation to start a free trial of our customer service product!

Tai Huynh

Co-Founder & CEO

Tai has worked for local and federal government in technology and innovation. In addition to Acta Solutions, he serves on the Town Council in Chapel Hill, NC.