By Cameron Brown and Anna Higgins
When a city faces a major influx of new residents, its city government is presented with unique challenges that require it to build new relationships with many residents en masse. The need to build these relationships is both timely and essential because city governments are trusted with promoting services residents want and need, such as safe communities, educated children, and clean streets. When a city effectively delivers services, fields community feedback, and seeks to consistently improve on its performance, a positive relationship between the city and its residents can develop. Just as importantly, trust, a key ingredient to promoting effective civic engagement, can be forged.
Orlando, Florida, uses effective service delivery alongside sustained, full-circle feedback, as a means by which to promote civic engagement and improve service delivery, despite the challenge of a rapidly growing population. Through its innovative Digital Platforms and Service Design (DPSD) team, Orlando seeks to foster a high-quality community “customer experience” in all city services in order to improve the interactions Orlandoans have with their city government, establish trust, and promote a springboard for community members to engage in a life of active citizenship. The DPSD develops digital solutions that serve as key mechanisms for connecting citizens, community stakeholders, and businesses to public services ranging from mobility to safety and sustainability to promote trust in local government.
Orlando is one of America’s fastest growing cities, adding nearly 100,000 new residents to its population between 2000 and 2020. Such a fast-growing city presents decision makers with a unique set of challenges for developing effective civic engagement; Millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, are the first major generation to grow up and remain in the city, after Orlando’s initial burst of expansion began in the late 1970s. Due to this massive, recent influx of people, many neighborhoods in Orlando are in the early stages of community development, and a sizable proportion of Orlando’s residents are just beginning to establish lasting roots in the city. As a consequence, Orlandoans are often not fully acquainted with the city’s services and often struggle to adequately and effectively use city resources.
This reality leads to a very fluid and unstable dynamic, a clean slate to forge new relationships and build a culture of civic engagement from the ground up. In addition, factors such as income, location, and language access, greatly influence how and why residents interact with the city, what services they use, and the likelihood they will provide open feedback on the services or policies they receive.
Orlando’s Digital Platforms and Services Design team is a dedicated group of individuals (four, as of June 2021) who seek to develop a community “customer experience” that enhances the delivery of city services. Each individual is a product manager tasked with overseeing a set of digital platforms that correlate to a related realm of services. In doing so, DPSD provides a targeted, individualized approach that takes advantage of everyday interactions in order to improve Orlandoans’ perception of their city government. The adage is simple: if residents feel their needs are being met and the city is listening to them, residents are more comfortable with city government and more trustful of its institutions. When that occurs, a sustainable atmosphere of civic engagement can be fostered.
The team started in 2017 after Matthew Broffman, who was working in the Orlando Mayor’s Office as an innovation official, recognized that many digital government platforms in Orlando were confusing and not being used to their full potential. Seeing an opportunity, Broffman believed that city residents deserve services that are user-friendly, modern, and as close to resembling “consumer-style” service as possible, so he moved over to the city’s Information Technology Department and started DPSD. Over the next few years, Broffman and his team structured Orlando’s digital apparatus around the different platforms the city uses. After much trial and error, the team grew from working with 10 city services at its onset, to over 300 city services by 2019.
Trust in local government is generally high across the country. Per a 2020 poll by Pew Research, nearly three-quarters of Americans trust their local governments. For comparison’s sake, only 24 percent trust our country’s federal government, the lowest of all major institutions in the United States. It is in these smaller local governments where Americans perceive progress on the major challenges facing their everyday lives. Why the gap? Broffman believes that building trust in government requires the effective execution of services, and local governments, being decentralized, bottom-up polities, often find novel ways to deliver on their promises.
The correlation is evident; a lack of trust often breeds fear and a hesitation to involve oneself in the community. Civic engagement is fueled by trust built between a city and its citizens. Because citizens may ask themselves “why” before determining whether it is worthwhile to engage, there is an extra step of consideration and a higher degree of hesitation that yields a trust building process that is not linear. This is where the DPSD attempts to bridge the gap; the team develops digital solutions that serve as key mechanisms for connecting citizens, community stakeholders, and businesses to public services ranging from mobility to safety and sustainability to alleviate the extra step of questioning and hesitation.
Services are not always the most visible or exciting aspect of a city’s operations. Whether it is trash collection, water delivery, or road maintenance, DPSD's work largely targets the more “mundane” aspects of everyday governance. However, these small, everyday interactions form a major part of the time citizens engage with their city government. Whether it’s a broken streetlight, an old pothole, or a parking meter that eats coins, a citizen’s opinion of their city’s functioning is driven by the delivery of key services that affect quality of life.
According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, U.S. individuals cite “well-functioning services, such as trash, roads, and transit” as the primary responsibility of their local government, ahead of other responsibilities such as education and crime. The lens by which residents examine their government is refracted through the prism of city services. For DPSD, this was an opportunity to further perfect the thing that practically everyone in a city uses: its services.
DPSD works within the Information Technology (IT) Department of the city government. This is significant because IT is the only department that works across the entire city. As a result, DPSD is one of the few teams that serves all the city departments - and the city departments are each considered individual “clients” for the team.
Using third-party, customizable platforms such as OpenCities, the DPSD nourishes digital tools that help improve the experience Orlandoans have with government functions. Their work centers around three primary items: (1) soliciting and receiving feedback for the execution of city services, (2) redesigning services to address problems surfaced by the feedback process, and (3) encouraging residents to take advantage of city services in the future. Using these digital tools, the DPSD improves the user interface of reporting mechanisms, increases the ease of making service requests, streamlines the process of obtaining necessary documents such as permits, and gathers information about service needs in Orlando. They also work with the owners of digital platforms to solve various problems that may arise.
The team often engages with a variety of projects both big and small, operational and administrative. It could be potholes and road maintenance, for example, or trash collection and recycling, commercial and residential permits, and code enforcement. The goal is to have city services meet or exceed the expectations of their citizens, and the team is continually using data to determine the actions that increase satisfaction.
For instance, Orlando’s road maintenance team worked with DPSD to get potholes filled within 48 hours of the initial report. Initially, officials believed that fulfilling the request in itself would increase satisfaction; however, the DPSD’s surveys indicated that it did not. In fact, many respondents reported that they did not know the pothole was fixed, much less fixed in a timely manner. DPSD then recognized the importance of notifying people when a service request has been fulfilled; as a consequence the DPSD built a notification apparatus to tell citizens when their service request has been realized. Customer satisfaction began to increase.
DPSD's assessments enable changes to occur; these assessments are dependent on full-circle feedback, and they provide key opportunities for citizens to be surveyed on the quality of their service delivery experience. The team built the system to focus on service feedback and improvement. About one to three months after the initial service request, DPSD sends out its initial survey. Anna Higgins, a DPSD project manager responsible for user testing and service design, believes that this time frame provides enough time for the service to be delivered while the experience is still fresh in the respondent’s mind.
The questions DPSD asks of Orlandoans arise from a key set of metrics centering on trust and satisfaction, generally centered around the respondent’s own expectations and how they’ve been met: “I [expected/didn’t expect] the [service] to do [X].” Through the survey responses collected from residents, DPSD seeks to answer a key set of questions for themselves: “Who is using this service?” and “Who isn’t using this service?” Other questions, like “why” or “how” a resident uses a service, promotes a more complete picture in understanding and improving service delivery.
Over the past few years, key patterns emerged with respect to these questions. One key pattern came from the dependency of trust on service use. For instance, individuals who report a pothole were found by DPSD to be significantly more likely to trust the city government to fulfill future requests or use city services afterwards; for DPSD, this is largely seen as a positive development that demonstrates the necessity of their work. Another positive development is that effective online platforms remove barriers that emerge when one needs to go to City Hall to request service or file complaints, so citizens are more likely to respond to surveys requesting feedback on their service delivery experience.
The DPSD’s initial surveys do not collect personal or socioeconomic information from respondents, but residents are invited to give feedback” (in DPSD’s lingo, “join the Online Community Feedback Group) where respondents can provide their race, income, and neighborhood, which can be submitted after the initial survey. It has steadily grown to over 3,000 members, and it provides valuable information about the nature of citizens who use city services and respond to DPSD’s surveys after service delivery.
Demographically, however, the survey feedback group does not match the socioeconomic makeup of the city; respondents in this group skew whiter, higher income, and older, and they live in the more central neighborhoods of the city. Efforts are being made to ameliorate this trend and collect a more accurate picture for the “survey feedback group.” City programs with a user population closer to Orlando’s demographics, such as low-cost summer recreation programs, are providing the DPSD the opportunity to do just that.
The team believes that moments of great need provide an opportunity for local governments to use their resources and build trust. Disasters and emergencies are a test for the services they oversee. During the early days COVID-19 pandemic, a sudden demand for online systems emerged and many citizens had to quickly reshape their interactions with the city. While most of the City of Orlando’s work to bring city services online was completed by 2019, creating a strong digital service foundation, a few services remained offline. Many small contractors and homeowners, for example, used to getting help filing permits in person at City Hall, suddenly were required to apply online. Many in-person services across the city were suspended.
As a consequence, trust and service satisfaction for these services dipped when the city needed to go fully digital. This gave DPSD the unique opportunity to fill the gap. Immediately, departments throughout the city worked to bring remaining services online. For example, the permitting department began offering virtual meetings to answer questions and help customers apply for permits. It also started a virtual inspections program for small construction jobs like air conditioner installation and re-roofing. The DPSD coordinated efforts to ensure digital services were being delivered and citizens’ needs were being met.
The DPSD’s existing resident feedback work provided a foundation for discovering how citizens wanted the city to respond to the COVID pandemic. In addition to the public health crisis caused by the pandemic, the local economy, highly reliant on tourism, was severely strained. Many citizens who were already vulnerable due to low wages, a housing affordability crisis, and Florida’s weak social safety net, became even more at risk for homelessness and food insecurity. The city surveyed residents in April 2020 asking for feedback on the city’s COVID response and what additional actions they wanted. In response to this feedback, Orlando partnered with local organizations to provide housing assistance and set up additional COVID testing sites. City departments who work with local businesses used DPSD’s feedback tools to better understand how to support them.
Developing a user-friendly, resident-centered digital platform for Orlando’s government has significantly shaped the way Orlando approached their daily operations. DPSD's efforts, according to Broffman, have minimized costs while improving the speed and quality of services. It has also optimized processes: developing a more streamlined approach to city functions can improve the functionality of the city government. No longer tethered to a service desk, departments and their staff can think and act proactively on other strategic initiatives. For instance, staff can invest time improving recruitment and hiring, streamlining backend processes, and incorporating better performance standards.
In fact, the DPSD team’s efforts enable collaboration over future-focused strategic groups, such as Sustainability, FutureReady, and SmartCity, by providing valuable resources and metrics to promote their success. Using its data-centered mechanisms, DPSD fosters each group’s strategic vision and promotes constructive goal-setting. In short, strategic groups drive the process, and the DPSD supports their efforts with robust research and data to assess impacts. More recently, the team was able to use its resources to engage employees on diversity and inclusion efforts in Orlando city departments and field city-wide community feedback on Orlando’s COVID-19 protocols and communications to citizens.
“Laddering Up” Engagement
DPSD's place on the active civic engagement continuum of Orlando is indispensable. By taking advantage of the commonality of the interactions DPSD develops, their work is part of a “gateway” to deeper engagement in Orlando’s civic sphere. There are Orlandoans in the community who do not know where to start their civic engagement journey. For someone who is new and unfamiliar to Orlando’s civic life, or a resident whose definition of civic engagement is largely confined to voting, the service delivery and complaints process is an ideal opportunity to introduce them to deeper forms of engagement. Broffman attributed DPSD's role to the entry level “rung” on the community “ladder of civic engagement.”
Broffman believes in meeting Orlando’s citizens where they are: one cannot expect those detached from the community to jump right in, so the community is responsible for creating spaces that encourage entry into the realm of civic engagement. Through the effective delivery of daily services and the addressing of complaints, DPSD's tools introduce members of the community to what is available. Given that most residents will need to turn to one of Orlando’s digital platforms at some point during their time in the city, this ensures exposure to the greatest proportion of residents across all social and economic lines. In turn, community members are given a more equitable springboard into deeper civic engagement opportunities to ascend the “ladder” and become active citizens. Through the opening of these fundamental communication channels, previously disengaged residents can be introduced to community organizations such as neighborhood associations, civic groups, and board meetings.
Despite Orlando’s reputation as a city with many new residents, there is still a cohort of well-established residents with links to the city that extend over a longer period of time. These residents tend to be more familiar with Orlando’s resources and chambers of civic power. As a consequence, these “frequent fliers'' carry an outsized role in city affairs compared to newer residents, whose civic engagement outlook is still limited. Newcomers tend to be casually engaged, and a disparity opens between the voices of those who are established in the community and those who are not. Other disparities in Orlando’s engagement landscape persist, as well; some neighborhoods have low levels of involvement in civic life, and residents who are either retired or own their house are more likely to engage than those who are not.
These engagement disparities are why it is important to continue “laddering citizens up” and promote the many opportunities their community offers. Using pre-existing physical spaces in the community, such as laundromats or public parks, DPSD is looking to ask residents for their feedback directly, instead of digitally, in order to stimulate interpersonal contact and create informal “public spaces” for dialogue. This would aid in addressing the pitfalls of its online feedback apparatus, which can yield surveys that may or may not field many responses, much less responses that are representative.
Orlando’s large-scale growth also presents a unique opportunity: their urban communities are largely new and fluid, so it is far easier to move in as a new resident and create an immediate impact. Engagement opportunities are diverse and myriad: actions such as starting a business, developing a blighted plot, and joining a neighborhood organization or serving on a board are considered future paths for Orlandoans to “ladder up” and contribute to the city in a meaningful way.
Broffman also cites a concern that stems from a societal attitude towards civic problem solving; he cites that many Orlandoans have a sort of “mindset” where the citizenry is not part of the process of reporting or fixing a problem they observe in their neighborhood or in their city. This is not necessarily a product of citizens having lower “trust.” Many citizens simply believe that the city will “take care of it on its own” and it “just isn’t their responsibility.” However, the data compiled by DPSD (and by extension, Orlando) is heavily oriented towards human complaints, so if a citizen does not report an issue, the city will not know one exists. As a consequence problems fester if citizens don’t report; a culture of reporting, where citizens see something and say something, will help the city effectively address deficits in a timely manner.
In addition, Anna Higgins indicated that people do not like to “switch channels” with respect to communication; satisfaction decreases if one needs to go online to fulfill a request only to receive a phone call afterwards. In Higgins’ view, this preference presents the DPSD a unique challenge to continually streamline processes as much as possible, in order to minimize the need to have residents “switch channels.” DPSD must work to keep as much of the service delivery process online as possible and only resort to other means of communication if it is absolutely necessary. Higgins also cites how dependent this is on an Orlandoan’s preferred language; as of now, the DPSD’s CX Program does not cater to those who do not speak English or Spanish, as communications in other languages remain largely in development.
Citizens also cite concerns with digital tools, and digitally-driven public spaces, for various security and reliability concerns. DPSD’s own feedback shows this “digital hesitancy” varies greatly, especially by age. Cities have a responsibility to deliver the highest levels of security, data privacy, and compliance standards to their platforms; assuaging these concerns is essential, given the degree of information sharing across a complex ecosystem of government agencies, partners and citizens. It is worth noting, however, that many citizens strongly prefer digital engagement because it removes barriers to participation for them.
Trust is a key ingredient to promoting effective civic engagement. If residents feel their needs are being met and the city is listening to them, residents will feel that they can rely on the city more, and stronger relationships will be built. For a rapidly growing city such as Orlando, with its newer population less familiar to the ins and outs of the city, this is a critical task. With its Digital Platforms and Services Design team, Orlando seeks to foster a high-quality community “customer experience” in all city services to improve the interactions Orlandoans have with their city government and form a richer atmosphere of civic engagement and active citizenship. Turning to digital platforms has other effects too, including greater interdepartmental efficiency and keeping constituent services afloat if budgets tighten. By embracing the transition to digital platforms, Orlando can deliver effective, connected public services in a challenging time of heightened demand and newer, less established communities.
Building trust can yield better resident-city relationships, and better relationships promote more meaningful civic engagement.
At their core, city governments are trusted with promoting services citizens want and need, such as safe communities, well-educated youth, and clean streets. Often, residents’ opinions about their cities are heavily influenced by the delivery of these services; effective service delivery allows citizens to achieve things that are meaningful to them, whether it be obtaining a permit for a neighborhood project or having trash picked up on time.
Digital platforms, when used effectively, can minimize costs while improving the speed and quality of services, allowing city departments and their staff to think and act proactively on other strategic initiatives.
Orlando’s Digital Platforms and Services exists at the intersection of the first three takeaways to introduce residents to civic engagement opportunities and address the challenges Orlando faces from a rapidly growing citizenry.
Cameron Brown is Democracy Cities Program Manager and a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate.
Anna Higgin is Digital Service Designer for the City of Orlando, Florida.