Mobile democracy: How governments can promote equality, participation and customer service

Mobile democracy

There’s a lot more to democratic government than holding elections and town hall meetings.

It’s about transparency and openness in government operations. It’s about empowering citizens with information, access to services, and opportunities for engagement. It’s about being “of the people and for the people” in every way possible.

In many ways, mobile technologies offer an ideal avenue for agencies to achieve these goals. Mobile trends suggest that increasing numbers of people are using smart phones for information and interaction — for personal, business and consumer purposes. Naturally, proponents of open government have been clamoring for agencies to get on board by providing mobile options to citizens. Whether it is a mobile version of a municipal site, apps for government services, mobile civic engagement campaigns, or a combination, making some type of mobile effort can show an agency’s commitment to connecting with citizens.

So … what can mobile government do for democracy? Here are a few ideas:

Engage more people

Not just the civic-minded folks that have time to attend public meetings or write to their elected officials — mobile tools can be used to reach people that might otherwise have very limited means of connecting with government. Rural residents, youth, handicapped or home-bound citizens, even people who are just plain busy — all can benefit from mobile access to government info and services. Mobile is everywhere, and it’s growing ever more common and affordable. By utilizing this avenue, governments can provide information AND get feedback from a broader swath of the population than by other means. This is democracy — equal opportunity — or at least a significant advancement in that direction.

Meet them where they are

Too often, governments do not make the effort (or just don’t know how) to connect with residents in meaningful ways. A government “for” the people will meet people where they already are, use the tools they are using, communicate in a way they can understand. This doesn’t mean that citizens are dumb, it just means that agencies need to cut the jargon, red tape and long lines as much as possible if they truly wish to empower the people. Mobile efforts are an ideal step in this direction. Through mobile interfaces, governments can offer no-wait access to services like bill payments, licenses and registrations, transit information, citizen reporting and beyond. Bringing these options TO the people, meeting them where they are, demonstrates a true democratic mindset and a sincere effort to connect with citizens.

Power to the people

Knowledge is power, and the democratic concept of empowering people through the opening of government data is a large part of the open government movement. It seems inevitable that agencies should aim to jump-start this process by going mobile — after all, citizens are already getting the majority of their daily information (weather, traffic, socialization, stocks, news, business, etc.) through their mobile devices. Governments hold great amounts of potentially helpful data in their hands. Opening this data by releasing it on public websites is good, but using mobile interfaces to disseminate it in a usable form is even better, and puts the power where it belongs — with the people.

Affordable democracy

Mobile democracy is affordable in the deepest sense (not just monetarily). It makes government connections and interactions more affordable for citizens in terms of effort, portability, flexibility, and convenience. Given mobile gov options, people are more likely to interact with their governments frequently, increasing trust and familiarity in ways that should be the goal of every democracy. They may visit the voting booth once a year or less, but citizens use government services — transit, taxes, sanitation, public works — every day. They also use their mobile phones every day. See the connection?

For a true democracy, a government striving for openness and accountability, getting on board with mobile technology just makes sense. Many agencies have made significant mobile efforts, with success, encouraging others to follow suit. Mobile democracy takes “open data” and makes it usable for the people … and wasn’t that the whole point of open government in the first place?

About Sid Burgess

Sid is the Government Relations Director at DotGov, Inc. During his last 10 years of public service including a combat tour in Iraq, Sid has focused on making our communities and neighborhoods better places to live through the smart application of technology. In this "Gov 2.0 era," Sid has worked with startups like SeeClickFix, EngagingPlans and YouTown to help cities go mobile and use Web 2.0 technologies effectively.

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