March 15, 2017 by Byron Katsuyama
Recognizing that more people are using smartphone apps for everyday transactions, some Washington local governments have begun to launch citizen-oriented apps that deliver news and services in a mobile-friendly format. In fact, the Pew Research Center recently reported that nearly three-quarters (77%) of Americans now own smartphones. Interestingly, they also reported that 64% of low-income Americans (earning less than $30,000 per year) own a smartphone, a fact worth noting for local government agencies that offer services to low-income groups. For many in this group, smartphones are their only means for accessing online content and services.
The Case for Mobile Apps
A recent Government Technology article, 5 Reasons Why Your Local Government Should Have its Own App, makes a good case for why government organizations should adopt a mobile strategy. First, apps deliver content in a mobile-friendly format that can more easily be read on popular devices like smartphones and tablets. Apps also offer the ability to provide “push notifications” that enjoy a relatively high “read rate,” so they have proven to be an effective way of engaging with citizens. Apps can also take advantage of powerful smartphone capabilities like GPS for pinpointing the location of problems like potholes or malfunctioning traffic signals, and cameras that allow citizens to add images to supplement feedback and reports.
Washington Local Goverment App Tour
I downloaded several Washington local government mobile apps to my smartphone to get a closer look at the types of services they offer and to see how they work. Since they’re all free, you can easily take them out for a test drive yourself. Here’s a quick tour of the apps I downloaded, including some screenshots, key features, and vendor information.
Auburn’s official mobile app, mobileAuburnWA, is a good example of a multiservice local government mobile app. The app allows users to report on a long list of issues like graffiti, abandoned vehicles, tree and vegetation problems, and potholes, and then to receive status updates on the city’s response. Users can also pay utility bills, sign up for recreation programs, stay up-to-date with the latest news and events, and contact city staff members. Users can also sign up to receive email updates on selected issues. Auburn worked with civic software company Accela (formerly PublicStuff) to develop the app.
Bellevue’s mobile app, MyBellevue, also allows users to report a variety of issues and make service requests. The reporting feature uses a smartphone’s GPS capabilities to pinpoint the location of the issue being reported. Users can also attach photos when they are reporting an issue to aid in the city’s response. The App’s top menu offers links to city news, events, jobs, and social media channels. Users can also view service requests that are near their location to see if others have reported the same issue and keep track of reported issues. Bellevue’s app is also powered by Accela.
Kennewick’s My Kennewick app presents a desktop-like opening screen with icons linking to its main features. Services include an agenda center for city council, board, and commission meetings, job notices, a notification service for city news, volunteer opportunities, street closures, road conditions, and emergency information. Kennewick worked with CivicPlus to develop the app.
The city of Camas offers CamasConnect 24/7, another Accela-powered mobile app. The app includes news and announcements, service requests (with a comprehensive menu of options), and a notification service that pushes updates and announcements to users. Some useful options included in the service request menu include a public records request form, a “bright idea” suggestion box, and a comprehensive code enforcement reporting tool. A helpful “knowledge base” feature offers a searchable database of frequently asked questions, articles, and forms. The Camas Municipal Code is also available in a mobile-friendly format.
Seattle offers several specialized mobile apps including Find It, Fix It, for reporting potholes, graffiti, or other similar problems, and a PayByPhone parking app, to make to make it easier to pay for on-street parking, plus Seattle Center and Key Arena apps, and a Seattle Library app. Seattle has also optimized many of their webpages for use with mobile devices like tablets and smartphones.
Overall I like the task-oriented approach that these local government apps provide, giving users convenient access to a good line-up of frequently used services. A well-designed app can be much easier to navigate and use than a larger, multipurpose website. Many apps enable convenient transactions, such as bill paying, recreation program registration, and public records requests, and have the potential to ease administrative burdens and reduce costs.
I’m also impressed with the potential uses for push notification services as an effective way to engage with citizens on issues they may have an interest in following. However, citizens have high expectations for the performance of mobile apps based on their experiences with private sector apps, and this can create some challenges for local governments. For example, if your mobile app links to city or county website pages that have not yet been optimized for mobile devices your user experience will be less than ideal.
Given the ubiquity of smartphone devices and the growing popularity of mobile apps in general, it’s seems likely that citizens will be looking to their local governments to make more services available on the devices they use most frequently. This may be particularly true for low-income users who rely more on smartphones to access online content and services.
For more information see: