Disconnected Governments, Disempowered Citizens: Civic Culture and The Public Sector CRM Opportunity

CRM has lots of proponents these days, and lots of momentum in the market, mostly for all the right reasons. But one reason in particular, specific to the public sector, and dramatically, almost radically important in its potential impact, is now beginning to take on a new focus. If you’re wondering why Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Oracle, and others are increasingly setting their sights on the public sector CRM opportunity, read on.

And as the election year looms large, and the level of intelligent public discourse continues to be threatened by political posturing, I have a proposal that I think would appeal to all sides. How about a new moon shot for the United States: a full blown, nation-wide, public sector CRM program.

There’s a whole lot more to public sector CRM than just improving costs and streamlining services: public sector CRM represents a new way to define the interactions between democracies and their citizens, and in the process drive new models of constituent relations and civic culture. And, if you’re like many of us on all sides of the political spectrum, a little uptick in civic culture is long overdue.

This is why I see red (as in ink) when I read about well-intentioned initiatives like sf.citi, which will “leverage the collective power of the tech sector into a force for civic action in San Francisco.” One of the main goals is to incubate new technologies for resolving civic issues. However well-intentioned the group’s goals, the fact remains that we already have lots of technology, in the form of CRM, that hasn’t even begun to be deployed as well as it could be.

The rationale behind sf.citi and other like-mined groups are worthy. Improving the interactions between citizens and government has been a goal of politicians, civil servants and their constituents since the dawn of democracy, but the ability to provide efficient and cost-effective service to constituents while empowering  them to have a stake in their own government has remained elusive: Not only has the complexity of governmental service and bureaucratic process grown in the last century, the ability of citizens to feel as though they have a direct stake in the overall functioning of government at all levels has diminished as this complexity has engendered a growing disconnect between citizens and their governments.

These issues play out in the context of a global need to streamline government and render it more efficient while lowering taxpayer costs. These requirements have been historically been ignored at best, and more often than not the cost of new technology has been a punishing burden for public sector entities. The global recession has made cost-cutting no longer optional, but essential for the preservation of much needed public services.

This disconnect between citizens and government, and between technology and lowering taxpayer costs, has been under attack in recent years as a new class of constituent relationship management systems has been deployed in the service of governments and citizens across the globe. The concept of CRM for the public sector – long promoted largely as a cost-efficiency move – is emerging as a tool that can help reverse this trend towards disaffection and disempowerment, provide a bridge between government and citizens that promises a more effective civic culture, and do so in an extremely cost-effective manner.

Well-designed and well-implemented CRM for the public sector can provide two key benefits. The first is the provision of government services at a greatly improved level of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The ability of public sector CRM to facilitate, automate, and streamline interactions among citizens, government employees, service providers, and other stakeholders can be an important element in improving the overall cost-effectiveness of government. This provides a level of value to taxpayers that reinforces good governance and fiscal accountability. 

In addition, the unique ability of CRM technology to improve interactions inside government as well as between government and its citizens can have a salutary effect on public servants and their job satisfaction and effectiveness. By improving the tools with which public servants perform their day to day tasks, public sector CRM can significantly boost public servant job satisfaction and performance, providing an important value to a class of stakeholders often neglected in the quest for better government.

One of the leading vendors in this sector, but not the only one by a long shot, is Microsoft. A look at their somewhat disjointed public sector web sites yields some great examples of how Dynamics CRM is used in public sector entities all over the world.

Besides the obvious constituent management and 311 call center management functions, which are the closest to commercial CRM, Dynamics CRM is used by public sector entities for “offender management”, a wonderful law enforcement euphemism for tracking the bad guys, asset/infrastructure inspection, repair, and compliance, event management, health and public health management – as in managing public assistance recipients and the services they use, case management, permit tracking and approvals, teacher certification and management, and lottery sales and management. It’s a long list that seems to have no bounds.

I got a little envious reading what some of these leading edge public sector agencies were doing. Imagine if your town had a central CRM database that could be accessed for all the services you need from your municipality. How about online permit submission? How about a geographic database that knows where you live so that when you report a street light outage, you’re not required to find an obscure number on the pole to submit with your report? What about automating dispatch for pothole repair? And however jealous I was as a potential user, as a taxpayer I would expect to be even happier if my city did one half the things a modern CRM system can do.  

The Goals and Challenges of Modern Democracies

There’s an almost insane amount of opportunity for public sector CRM:  In addition to helping governments cope with budget and manpower issues – now greatly exacerbated by the global recession –the adoption of commercial CRM technology in the public sector can also help local and national governments overcome constraints created by both the quality of the technology available to support public sector activities and the different government entities’ ability to consume this technology.

These constraints are becoming more and more limiting, and are themselves exacerbating another key problem: The complexity and reach of government activities and services has grown by orders of magnitude in the past two decades, and with that complexity has come a growing sense of distrust and dissatisfaction on the part of citizens towards their governments. While this citizen distrust and dissatisfaction has been well-documented, particularly in the United States, what is less well-documented is a similar level dissatisfaction on the part of many government service workers, particularly those in the front-line of constituent service who bear the brunt of citizen frustration.

An excellent example of this dynamic can be seen in the problems that local citizens in Los Alamos County, New Mexico face in identifying the correct agency to contact regarding a problem with a tree. Depending on what needs to be done – remove a tree that is interfering with power lines, inspect a tree that is infested with parasites – and which local jurisdiction “owns” responsibility for the tree – the county, the U.S. Forest Service, the Division of Public Works, among many others – there are twelve different responsible agencies under whose jurisdiction any individual tree might fall.

As cited in Customer Service and 311/CRM Technology in Local Governments: Lessons on Connecting with Citizens, published in 2008 by International City/County Management Association, any citizen calling a local government office in Los Alamos County about a tree problem is faced with running a gauntlet of jurisdictional and administrative complexity that is equally unclear to the government official trying to respond to the citizen’s request.

This example is all too common, regardless of the size or location of the government entity. The report goes on to note that the results of this service complexity and a dearth of tools can prove frustrating for all:

Even in small communities with populations less than 10,000, it is not unusual to find eight to ten departments operating within the local government. For citizens trying to determine which department or division they should call with their specific questions or requests for service, the complexity of the organization can be confusing and time-consuming to unravel. And often, local government employees are not sure themselves where to direct a particular phone call. They can end up misdirecting people and possibly leading to multiple transfers before the citizen reaches the right staff member.

This combination of public sector complexity, with overlapping roles and jurisdictions, citizens’ inability to navigate this complexity, and public servants’ lack of a means to properly assist citizens in overcoming this complexity, is at the root of a growing set of problems in modern democracies. These problems, in turn, are contributing to an erosion of trust and civic culture in local, regional, and national governments worldwide.

Citizens and Civic Culture: The Problem Set

At the core of the problems of complexity and trust is the inability of many governments to optimize the services they deliver to citizens in a way that benefits the many stakeholders in the government service process. In addition to citizens, these stakeholders include employees, such as call center and field service employees, that work directly for government agencies, as well as third party contractors that either provide services on behalf of the government or interact with governments on behalf of citizens. 

This large set of stakeholders must interact in the accomplishment of the many processes that inform civic life, and do so in an optimal way. Whether these interactions involve permit and license processing, garbage services, voter registration, parking tickets, or support for visitors and tourists, the efficient accomplishment of these processes is a key element in the defining the perception of effective government. Inefficient or wasteful processes that frustrate or burden citizens are part of a government “performance” problem that researchers like Harvard professor Pippa Norris, author of Democratic Deficits: Critical Citizens Revisited, characterizes as key to the erosion of civic culture.

The process inefficiency that is rampart in the public sector has at its origin three key factors that stem from the growing complexity of society and the intersection of citizens and their governments.

The first is the growth of information. The data required to efficiently run even a small local or regional government is growing at an extraordinary rate. Understanding how those data can be used efficiently – whether the data is about citizens or government assets or any other relevant asset or stakeholder – is a major challenge to be overcome.

The second major problem is the accessibility of that information. Not only is there a massive amount of data in these processes, many public sector information systems are ill-equipped to render these data usable by the different stakeholders. Existing information systems are often antiquated, siloed, and suffer from a lack of funding and expertise. Meanwhile, the vast majority of research and development in software and information technology is targeted at commercial, not public sector systems, and as such the resulting applications and tools are often ill-designed for public sector use. This results in much of the technological lag in the public sector that President Obama referred to an address to the OMB Forum in March, 2010:

Public servants, President Obama noted, are more than willing and able to participate in improving the interactions between government and citizens. “But all too often,” President Obama said, “their best efforts are thwarted because the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government.”

The third major problem is the historic inability of governments to keep up with the need for new processes to effectively manage the growth in information and the need to better manage citizen/government interactions. This problem is both a public policy issue and an information technology issue: governments need to mandate change, and then work closely to ensure that the change is implemented in the most effective manner using the best technological tools available.

Importantly, the impact of using technology to improve government effectiveness need not be a matter of spending more to do more. Indeed, in many cases, these approaches can be extremely cost-effective. According to a report by CALPIRG, the California-based public interest research and lobbying group, the payback for undertaking the initiatives that bring citizens and government closer together can be significant.

A recent CALPIRG report,California Budget Transparency 2.0, highlights the example of the state’s Reporting Transparency in Government website. The site, which cost $21,000 to develop and $40,000 annually to maintain, provides access to state budget and other data for citizens to download and analyze. In one example cited by CALPIRG, citizens using the site were able to look at usage data for the state’s automobile fleet and direct administrators to information that suggested that the fleet was larger than needed. This resulted in the reduction of the fleet by 15 percent and a savings of $24.1 million.

What the CALPIRG report, and others like it show, is that many of the technologies used by the private sector to engage customers and partners with businesses can be applied to the issue of engaging citizens and other stakeholders with their governments. This is very much the case with CRM software and related technologies.

The success of a number of vendors’ public sector CRM offerings shows that there is a way to help improve the functioning of government and help reverse some of the corrosive effects of government complexity and citizen disaffection and distrust. The fact that modern public sector CRM systems are increasingly inexpensive to implement and equally as inexpensive to modify helps satisfy the need for governments to be accountable to taxpayers when it comes to spending on technology. This accountability is itself a key element in civic culture and trust, and being able to build highly effective citizen interaction systems based on a cost-effective CRM package brings an additional value to public sector entities.

That accountability is extended by the analysis that can be undertaken once key public sector processes are mediated by a modern CRM system. The analysis that a CRM-based municipal service and support system can perform regarding problems with malfunctioning parking meters, or the citizen satisfaction rates that a  city can analyze based on data from its CRM system, support a metrics-based society that in turn can actively optimize its citizen-support processes based on real data, something that has been largely impossible for most public entities to accomplish.

Finally, the notion that modern CRM systems can improve the effectiveness, and therefore the job satisfaction, of government employees and other stakeholders provides a new lens with which to view the role of technology in public sector entities. Ensuring that the growing number of interactions between citizens and public sector employees take place under optimal conditions of effectiveness and efficiency provides a environment for improved public service that benefits all.

So, before we launch public/private initiatives a la sf.citi, we should start with something we already have and know well. CRM in the public sector is an idea that has so many applications, so many examples from the private sector on which to draw from,  and so many good products to deploy, that it’s almost criminal to consider running a democracy without a full-blow public sector CRM system. I’d love to see this become part of the dialogue in the coming election cycle, instead of some of the nonsense we’re seeing in the public discourse. With CRM’s proven ROI in the private sector, it should be easy to cost-justify a serious national investment in modernizing citizen/government interactions. Who needs to colonize the moon when there’s so much more we can do to make life better here on earth, for so much less?

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