Cities are increasing citizen engagement by “Amazonifying” their services

From tax payments in bitcoin to bus schedules on Alexa, cities are taking their cues from Amazon to make their services more user-friendly.

“The digital citizen is really taking off,” said Mike Melinyshyn, CFO & director of corporate services for the Town of Innisfil. He delivered a keynote address to municipal leaders at ITWC’s Technicity GTA conference. “People are more engaged and it’s refreshing to see,” he said.

City officials who participated in a digital citizen panel discussion agreed that services must offered through a variety of options to reach citizens. “It’s really that expectation of the Amazonification of city services,” said Cyrus Tehrani, the chief digital officer for the City of Hamilton. That, said Melinyshyn, means providing a more dynamic and interactive citizen experience using live chats, resident portals and chatbots.

Engaging more citizens allows municipalities to understand residents more deeply to help ensure that services meet their needs, explained Tehrani. “We can take a human-centred design approach for services, as opposed to presenting something to citizens from the inside out,” he said.

Panel moderator Peter Near, the national director of technology for VMware asked how cities can ensure they hear from a broad range of citizen groups. “We’re moving away from asking for feedback to listening to what people are saying on social media,” said Kalyan Chakravarthy, the chief information officer for Durham Region. Meanwhile, the City of Toronto has offered gift cards for groceries to encourage participation from groups that may be more marginalized, said Asim Hussain, director of customer experience and Innovation for the City. “It’s a great investment to achieve a better service experience,” he said.

Innovation that gets attention

Municipalities are also looking to innovative ideas to gain efficiencies and to capture the interest of citizens. The Town of Innisfil uses Uber instead of a bus system, explained Melinyshyn. “We’re able to provide door-to-door delivery for residents at a much more reasonable cost than maintaining an entire transit infrastructure,” he said. He noted that the Town is also prototyping an autonomous sidewalk snow plow and is the only municipality to accept bitcoin for property taxes.

Durham Region is developing a channel for smart home devices, said Chakravarthy. “Citizens can inquire about services such as when is the next bus coming,” he said.  The region will be adding most of its services to the channel with a view to making its website “obsolete,” Chakravarthy said.

In Kitchener, the City is developing an app that leverage 3-D modeling so that people can see what a proposed new development will look like, said Dan Murray, the City’s director of technology innovation and services. “There’s a lot of new development in the city and people in existing neighbourhoods want to know what’s going to change,” Murray said.

Citizen privacy is a top priority

Despite considerable progress, privacy issues are an ongoing challenge. “I’m not very keen on the word smart,” said Melinyshyn. “Smart technologies encroach on people’s privacy rights. We prefer to call it insightful because we want an understanding of our residents’ needs but balanced with privacy by design.” Melinyshyn noted that Innisfil is working with a not-for-profit company to ensure that residents have control of their data. Another partner is developing QR codes that will tell residents what data is being collected and how it will be used. “We want to build trust with our citizens so that they know that their data will not be use for purposes other than originally intended.”

Collaboration among municipalities

The Town of Whitby is in the early stages of its digital strategy, said Dan Munns, director of technology and innovation services. But he sees an opportunity to learn from  his peers. “There are endless possibilities in how we can deliver services to residents,” Munns said. Other municipalities could help shave six months to a year off initial idea generation, added Near.

Indeed, municipalities in Durham Region are already meeting regularly to talk about challenges and solutions, said Chakravarthy. “We are an example of how we can help each other in serving our citizens.”

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Cindy Baker
Cindy Baker
Cindy Baker has over 20 years of experience in IT-related fields in the public and private sectors, as a lawyer and strategic advisor. She is a former broadcast journalist, currently working as a consultant, freelance writer and editor.

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