Many a political leader or IT director will stipulate that government needs to make citizen-facing computer systems more like Amazon – fast, friendly, efficient, and unfailing. But more often than not this seems to be a bridge too far, as some of the most visible citizen-facing government applications have performed woefully.

While the pandemic exposed some of the most visible disruptions in unemployment insurance claims, vaccine appointment registrations and call centers across government, many other shortcomings of citizen-facing applications could not fall back on a COVID alibi.

Confusing portals, lack of enterprise identity and access management protocols, plus printing and snail-mail routines rather than on-line forms’ capabilities, can drive citizens to despair.

Ever since the internet came to government in the mid-1990s, online functions have followed a tortuous path. While CIO in California I experienced this frustration firsthand. I tried to help a friend back East obtain a copy of her fiancé’s California divorce record from some 15 years prior. Following weeks of fruitless attempts to reach the state’s Office of Vital Records Department by phone in Sacramento, they were reaching out to me since I now not only lived there, but also worked for the state.

I went straight to the department’s web site and with some difficulty did finally find a process to obtain a copy. It was not online, of course, but a form could be printed out, completed and mailed back in along with $12 to receive a copy of the document. Problem solved I figured. I was about to email the couple with the web address for the form but decided to read it over first.

At the bottom of the page in bold italics the Office of Vital Records’ form warned that … drum roll… “Due to budgetary constraints, processing time for divorce records can take 2-3 years.”

While this example is dire, much has changed over the years, and certainly the COVID pandemic has been a catalyst for the “online, not inline” meme. With state offices often closed and many state employees working remotely, there was great need to facilitate further deployment of online citizen services.

Bay State Experience

Day Two of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ (NASCIO) Midyear virtual conference on May 26 covered the same path of these developments in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I also helmed the CIO position.

Pat Cummens, Director of Government Strategy and Policy Solutions at Esri moderated the session. Pat’s a faithful NASCIO corporate member who I’ve known for years. The speaker was our good friend, Curtis Wood, Massachusetts’ Cabinet Secretary overseeing the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security (EOTSS) and the Commonwealth’s Chief Information Officer – my successor so to speak.

Having been the first CIO for Massachusetts in the early to mid-1990s, I was excited to hear from Curt about the latest developments in citizen services in the Bay State particularly almost 18 months into what we hope and pray is this waning COVID pandemic.

Cummens set the stage nicely with her clarification of the “citizen experience” description. “It seems that citizen experience or citizen engagement means something different to whomever you talk to, depending on where you sit, whether you’re the citizen, whether you’re the IT person trying to engage, or you’re that business leader who has an idea of how they’d really like to engage with citizens,” she said. Cummens especially likes the explanation of citizen services where they can lead to a range of outcomes including more effective services and more responsible and accountable state governments.

Wood was very positive about the unintended yet positives consequences of the pandemic. “I know it’s surely been a challenge for everybody but I also think it’s really shed the light on the need, and it’s really energized, at least in my state, it’s energized the agencies and the businesses to do better, to actually connect with the folks that they serve.”

Massachusetts used the pandemic challenge to really substantiate some of the digital services opportunities that state officials had been considering for years. It’s no question anymore that people actually want to interact and receive their government services online.

Cummens observed and acknowledged the silver lining of the pandemic. “It was this great opportunity to try new things to push the limits and set new expectations,” she said.

Wood admitted that fostering greater state agency deployment of online government services can be a challenge. The technology may exist, but Wood asked, “How do we transform our state agencies, and how do we transform our people to think about online services, as opposed to doing business the same old away?”

He described the traditional horrors the public faces with the department of motor vehicles, standing in line for hours to try to get your license renewed, going to the counter and getting a number. Wood said, “One of the great outcomes during the pandemic in Massachusetts was a simple thing, a new reservation system.” No surprise, the state confirmed through surveys and feedback from citizens that they actually liked making an appointment, coming into the registry and getting a license or doing other online transactions. “We were able to really listen, do the analytics, to watch the traffic on our .gov web site, and to engage with the folks and communicate with them.”

To that end Wood described how Massachusetts began to really focus on the social media perspective, to actually look at what’s going on, and to listen to messaging. Like other states, Massachusetts struggled at the very beginning of the vaccine rollout and especially vaccine registration. “We had some website crashes, but we were able to quickly recover from that,” he said.

“What’s so interesting,” Wood explained, “is that a large number of citizens were actually standing up scraper sites to be able to scrape websites for further analysis, for the public, real citizen engagement.” As he explained, “We certainly took some hits in the media, but at the end of the day, the people in Massachusetts, the folks that actually were in need of services that couldn’t get services, they taught us a very, very valuable lesson.”

In retrospect, Wood is convinced that this pandemic experience really strengthened his state organization to be able to think differently, to be able to adapt, to be able to deliver, and to think outside the norm. “We don’t get stuck in that old kind of bureaucratic, technocratic way we tend to do things too often in government.”

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.