When we look at local government and the digital tools they build, we quickly see that there are four digital milestones that local governments go through in providing services to their cities. Each step in the process is a natural progression in how every city matures in the process to put out digital services to their citizens.

Some governments have crossed these digital milestones already, while some are still looking to perfect only a single step. The process to get there is different for different organizations; but, the final destination is universal.

#1 Website

The first local government websites which popped up in the late 90s and early 2000s were cutting edge at the time. But, as well look back at these (see Chicago in 1999Los Angeles in 2000, and New York in 2000), we quickly realize that these websites were really just glorified digital brochures. The sites contained predominantly text and links to more text. There wasn’t true interaction with users nor a dynamic business process for citizens to complete in getting services. Instead, the website was a digital place to park information and serve as another medium of communication, another way to push out information.

#2 Responsive Website

Building off of those websites that were built, cities in the mid-2000s and since have realized that a website can’t be built to only look or display nicely on a desktop computer. Most of us early smartphone adopters can remember using that device to open up a webpage that was not responsive. The result was a was a full page on a 3.5″ iPhone screen displayed in size 4 font, on it was not just an unpleasant experience but a complete struggle to make sense of the site. It is now necessary for these websites to be functional on tablets and smartphones.

On a regular basis, we hear local government officials advocate that this digital milestone is “good enough” for local government. But, the many smart people know two facts about citizens’ digital usage, which completely debunk this myth:

  1. The data shows without a doubt that dedicated apps dominate usage statistics.
  2. When it comes to delivering a superior user experience on apps, native provides the most robust options.

Websites are incredibly dynamic and interactive. From initiating the permit process to paying for utilities to enrolling in a Parks and Rec class, local government has embraced digital interaction on the web. However, as these sites grow in functionality and complexity it becomes increasingly difficult to offer an outstanding user experience across the growing number of connected phones and tablets.

Read More about Milestone #2 and how to get unstuck!

#3 Smartphone App

The data is unambiguous – digital media usage time is dominated by mobile apps:

  • Mobile apps dominate the mobile web at 87% of time spent on the internet compared to 13%,
  • For total time spent on digital media, smartphone apps account for more than 50% compared to 7% on mobile web browsers.

As mobile apps have become so incredibly pervasive in daily lives, local governments have moved to push out services to a native mobile app. Currently, a lot of local governments are still in the exploratory phase here. Often their current website provider will sell them what is basically just a mobile app shell which pulls in all the same pages that were built responsively for their website. Certainly each government has to do what’s best for themselves, but this isn’t a real solution and is more a stop gap to say “we check the box” that we have a native app.

Read More about Milestone #3 and how to get unstuck!

#4 Mobile App Platform

The fourth and final stage in developing a true digital services for citizens in local government, is a mobile app platform. A mobile app platform builds on the work done to develop and deploy native apps, but it ensures that it’s done in a systematic, cohesive, and efficient manner. If it’s not done this way, then you fall into the dreaded app sprawl.

App sprawl entails an organization building, maintaining, and publishing disparate, separate apps. The same approach was seen with some local governments in the early days of their website –  letting each department create separate websites on separate URLs by different methods or software for even creating those pages.

A mobile platform attempts to avoid local governments from incurring this same problem on a smartphone. A great example of a mobile app platform can be seen by the work done by Google or Facebook (or Rock Solid customers)(previously CitySourced).

For example, Facebook has a single hub application on smartphones known as Facebook and it has the widest breadth of functionality but also sometimes lacks features in certain, specific areas. To account for these limits in functionality, Facebook then builds out separate apps, such as Messenger, Instagram, and even an app for managing Pages. These apps all interact, they all use the same authentication, and they can cross post content within one another; in doing so, they allow users who want to use the single app to move forward, while also providing those users who want a very deep, specific functionality in one area, such as photo posting or messaging to have a much deeper and richer experience.

As more and more services provided by local government are pushed out to digital, all local municipalities will cross these digital milestones. However, those that are able to plan in advance will do so more effectively and more efficiently.