A Critical Juncture for Cities: Building Digital Services

By Lauren Lockwood

When Boston started a redesign of its City Hall lobby, a wayfinding expert asked a simple question: “What do people come to City Hall to do?” None of us at the table could answer. You know who did have the answer? The security guard who stands at the entrance. Every day, City Hall visitors (after passing through a very government-y metal detector) ask him where to get a marriage license, pay a parking ticket, etc. He has a mental pie chart of the most requested services, our Google Analytics for foot traffic.

In my experience, much of the information about city services (who the user is, how they access information, etc.) resides with the employees who aren’t at the table when these services are designed.

Why does that matter? Cities and towns are at a critical juncture as they race to “go digital.” There’s no shortage of press releases about how you can now report a pothole via an iPhone app or request a dog license online. If done well, digital services offer an opportunity to substantially improve government service delivery, save enormous amounts of money and time, and improve constituents’ trust and confidence in their government.

But without the right information, cities are navigating this critical transition in an ad hoc, reactive, and often siloed way. An effort to undergo that transition strategically is why cities from Boston, MA, to Gilbert, AZ, have created Chief Digital Officer (CDO) roles. And it’s why I, during my time as Boston’s first CDO, prioritized building a top-to-bottom inventory of the forms (e.g., paper, PDF, and online forms) constituents interact with. These form-based interactions are almost always the entry point to services. So, as a city, understanding baseline information on your forms (i.e., which ones get used the most) is critical to building better digital services for your residents.

Concerned by this trend and inspired by the progress in Boston and other cities like Austin, TX, and Washington, D.C., I teamed up with What Works Cities partner Results for America to learn more about how cities are approaching digital services.

In the last six weeks, I’ve posed a simple question to 29 cities of varying sizes across North America: “Which of your forms get used the most?” The answers I got have been far more interesting than the short list of services I expected. The same themes reappeared in many of these conversations, shedding light on a shared sense of urgency, optimism, and uncertainty about building digital services responsibly.

Here’s what I’ve heard:

Information is decentralized …

My first challenge was figuring out who in a city is in the best position to answer the question. I talked to call centers, chief data officers, web teams, and more. Unsurprisingly, the answer varies by city. But what was resoundingly true in every city is that information about form usage doesn’t live in one place. Departments’ knowledge is limited to the forms they own and the systems they have access to. For example, a 311 call center can supply detailed information on the number and types of calls they receive about birth certificates, but can’t tell you how many birth certificates are actually given out. A web team can tell you which of their web pages gets the most hits, but not how many times a PDF has been printed or submitted. Basic metrics are often hidden away in the department that owns a particular form.

… and difficult to track.

Even at the departmental level, there is limited information on who’s accessing services, through which channels (e.g., in person, mobile device, desktop computer at the library), and the barriers to access they encounter. Often, IT systems were not designed to capture this information, and without a clear use for it, it’s difficult to make the case for investing in that functionality. This may also be why, in a race to bring services online, many cities have not prioritized data collection as they build digital options.

D.C.’s Form-a-Palooza hackathon brought together residents to redesign some of the City’s most commonly used forms (Photo Credit: David Ris)

The bulk of interactions are concentrated among a few services …

Each city I spoke to had hundreds of forms. However, they believed that only a handful really are used regularly, roughly 10 to 25 are used often, and then there’s a long tail of obscure or outdated forms. The most commonly mentioned forms were related to utilities (e.g., bills, turn on/off), 311 requests, taxes, parking tickets, FOIA requests, and jobs.

… which are similar across cities.

Cities expected significant overlap with other cities in the top services they provide. Of course there were aberrations like Boulder’s disproportionately high demand for recreation passes, but in general there was significant consistency in the services each city mentioned.

Cities are eager to go to digital.

There was a general understanding that it’s important to offer digital options for city services. The problem isn’t so much a resistance to change as knowing how to achieve it. The front-line employees who understand a service and its users best do not typically have the skill set to build a digital option for that service. However, as the technology to build online forms or to post PDFs online has become simpler and cheaper, many departments have begun independently doing so in response to constituents’ demands. The result is typically a choppy user experience, in which constituents are often required to navigate a maze of forms, both online and offline, to access services.

The City of Austin conducted user research exercises to inform the information architecture of its new website

Technology is driving digital “strategy.”

Often, the impetus for building or improving digital services is driven by technology life cycles. Cities face a decision to build or buy technology any time an existing application breaks or when current technology is up for renewal or replacement. In these situations, the timeline to find a solution is often compressed, which favors a path of least resistance: re-upping with an existing vendor or making slight modifications to an existing solution. Many cities noted that when they do think proactively about redesigning or building a digital service, it is initiated by a vendor approaching them about their product. Almost every city volunteered that this is not the ideal approach to building digital services, and is an area where they want to be more strategic.

Innovation is happening in pockets …

There is a lot of interesting work being done. For example, D.C. is using community input and behavioral science to redesign their paper forms. A number of cities, like Denver and Grand Rapids, have built one-stop-shop portals, allowing constituents to access many services from a single entry point.

In Boston, I wanted a better baseline understanding of our city services, so I hired someone we lovingly dubbed the “PDF killer” to build a comprehensive inventory of forms. The rationale was to categorize forms to determine the right technology for each. For example, birth certificates and death certificates might naturally seem like similar forms (both fall under the Registry department, require payment, are used by all constituents, talk to the same backend system, etc.). However, while birth certificates are typically requested on a one-off basis, death certificates are typically purchased in bulk by funeral homes. The result is that death certificates require a “shopping cart,” whereas birth certificates do not. This seemingly slight modification can (and did!) render one software useless for a transaction like death certificates. In building that inventory, we prioritized completeness and tagging but didn’t tackle metrics like how often the forms were used, through which channels, etc. — something that is necessary for effectively prioritizing services and demonstrating progress.

… and cities are informally learning from each other.

Informal relationships have formed between cities tackling similar issues. Many teams are documenting lessons learned and posting them online as resources for others (e.g., Austin’s Civiqueso). Teams supplement their blogs with email exchanges and phone calls with specific project leads in different cities. No cities mentioned formal “networks of practice” as being a source for ongoing knowledge-sharing for cities around digital services. However, some cities cited federal-level efforts — such as the UK’s Government Digital Service, the U.S. Digital Service, and 18F — as being important resources for best practices.

So what now?

This is a work in progress. I’ll continue talking to cities for the next few weeks to build on these initial conversations and ultimately to inform recommendations on how we overcome some of these challenges. This issue is urgent. Cities are going digital — it’s not a matter of if but how. If cities are to receive support, it needs to happen as soon as possible. It’s easier to build responsibly from the ground up than to connect silos or repair processes retroactively.

Lauren Lockwood is a researcher and consultant helping cities work better in a digital age. She served as Boston’s first Chief Digital Officer where she led the redesign of Boston.gov and worked to improve digital communications, engagement, and service delivery. Lauren has experience in product management and digital transformation in startups and multinational organizations. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School, where she focused on entrepreneurship and digital strategy. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Vassar College. Lauren lives outside Philadelphia, PA, with her husband and two children.

Comment below or reach out to her on Twitter @lflockwood to share additional resources or examples from cities focused on forms and how they transitioned to digital.




Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

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