Canadian city CIOs discuss the way they’re moving to ‘mobile first’

In some organizations it’s the employees who are clamoring for the increased use of mobile technology. In others, it’s senior management that want to see their firm quickly make strategic use of smartphones, tablets and apps. In the case of the City of Windsor, however, Harry Turnbull has no one to blame but himself.

“The pressure came from me,” the municipality’s CIO admitted at the recent Mobile Enterprise Strategies Summit in Toronto. “I had been talking to colleagues, and in some cases  the hype had gotten to their corporation before they were prepared to handle it.”

Turnbull wanted to avoid that kind of scenario, which is why he said he started some time ago to create a governance structure formally at the top of the organization that made a commitment to standardization, and applied that to its approach to mobile technology.

As Turnbull pointed out, many public and private sector organizations realized years ago that their sluggish adoption of online technologies eventually gave way to a “Web-first” mindset when new products and services are developed. He said government organizations like his are trying to extend that to a “mobile-first” mindset, though in some cases it may be easier said than done.

All channels, big and small

Part of the problem is moving to “mobile first” adds work on top of what many cities are already doing.

“We’re finding that what we need to do is provide services through all the different channels. Mobility is just one of those channels,” explained Sabina Visser, General Manager, Information Technology at the City of Lethbridge, who also spoke on a panel at the conference. “We’re finding an increase in (mobile) usage, but other channels aren’t decreasing. There are no statistics necessarily, but we’re still seeing the same amount of people coming in the front door.”

While organizations in some industries might make a concerted effort to push customers from stores or branches to a digital method, governments have a responsibility to be accessible, Visser added. That’s one of the reasons her city hired a “digital inclusion coordinator” to make sure mobile is a piece of its strategy, but one that complements rather than replaces other things.

“Our strategy is to try it,” she said of new ways of delivering services via mobile devices. For example, Lethbridge has created a “request for service” app to allow citizens to report on thinking that need fixing in various parts of the city, rather than having city workers travel to all the various spots.

“With all the potential possibilities out there, it’s hard to build a high-level strategy.”

Prepping for ‘mobile first’

Besides a good governance framework, Visser recommended public sector firms standardize on their back-end infrastructure that may be needed to support mobile device management and all the various apps.

“It’s about having the right channels for your data, to connectivity — if you can do that, then the device conversation moves away,” she said. “That becomes a product of the actual service you’re providing.”

Public sector organizations may also have to work harder at managing expectations. Jacqui Chesterton,a strategic analyst in the general manager’s office at the City of Edmonton, described an “uprising of a very active citizenry” where she lives for more mobile services. This is in part due to Edmonton’s early adoption of open data policies that put more information into the public domain. Chesterton said the city has spent two years on a corporate culture change initiative to help employees get acclimatized to the reality of how their world is transforming.

“You can’t just stick (mobile technology) out there and not expect that won’t change the way we operate,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re not over-running resources and capacity to meet (citizens) with new avenues for communications.”

As an example, Chesterton discussed Edmonton’s 311 app, which allowed iPhone and Android users a way to report issues such as potholes, litter and damaged trees. Though successful, the app has meant more issues are being reported, even though the call centre remains a central area to collect all those reports.

HR and other considerations

Turnbull said figuring out the scope of what will change needs to start long before a smartphone policy is rolled out or a city-related app hits the app store. He suggested that looking at work that was done to meet accessibility standards may be one way for public sector organizations to translate what they’ll need to do in a mobile context. Internally, however, there may be considerations around health and safety, even for ergonomic considerations of city workers in vehicles who will now be using tablets or smartphones as they walk around.

“You’d better have an HR person” when those strategic projects begin, he said, adding that mobility’s impact on training and hiring practices are still being fleshed out. “You’ll be creating job descriptions across the board where having a basic level of understanding of technology is a must,” he said. “Maybe you don’t need them to turn on a computer today, but you will someday. When they have a mobile need, hopefully we can fit them in somewhere where we have standardized.”

Visser agreed. In fact, Lethbridge has made it a requirement for onboarding in many city IT department functions to work in at least six different jobs. That means employees gain valuable insight — and credibility — among their peers from the front desk to the back office. “When they see our staff, they can see them differently now. It’s not asking help with Word,” she said.

The mobile UX problem for cities

A more long-term problem is that IT departments tend to be more comfortable with certain kinds of hardware and software, and vendors aren’t necessarily developing applications that provide the right mobile user experience (UX) in government today, Visser added. “It’s hard to plan (what your needs will be) five or 10 years out,” she said.

Edmonton has been tackling this issue by forming a closer relationship with its local startup community, Chesterton said. The city’s Mobile Centre of Excellence brings firms in to discuss projects from what she described as a pre-flight stage into proof of development. “That startup community gets an opportunity to engage with the city, and the city gets that energy from the startup,” she explained. “Fresh eyes in a city environment is very valuable.”

Turnbull said the move to a mobile-first city will ultimately test the way municipalities set priorities. For example, is offering tablets or apps to nursing homes providing patient care at the bedside more important than being able to get potholes filled more quickly?

One thing is certain: government can’t afford to wait on the sidelines while the public sector figures it all out.

“These things are disruptive to the organizations, but not to citizens,” said Chesterton. “When we offer mobile services, they’re not thinking, ‘Wow, this is revolutionary from our government.’ For today’s citizen, he thinks being able to pick up a phone and interact with this government is as standard as having a door on his bathroom. They’re waiting for us. Actually, they’re going on without us.”

photo credit: WherezJeff via photopin

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