Four Strategies for Small Local Governments to Close the Digital Gap

Lena Eisenstein
4 min read
When we see a gap, we naturally want to fill it or build a bridge to cross over to the other side. Many people know about the concept of digital exclusion and how it affects people, but how can we all help close this gap and allow everyone to enjoy the benefits of technology? There is a consistent pattern of higher income families owning more technology devices and accessing the internet more often than families with lower incomes. What about the digital gap between cities with larger revenue and cities with smaller revenue? How can smaller municipalities work to catch up to their larger counterparts? We've discussed before how governments are faced with the challenge of engaging millennials and leading conversation online. In a study done by Harris Poll near the end of 2016, the large majority of 2,000 adults surveyed said that they didn't know they could access basic services online, like applying for a business license for example. This doesn't mean that these services aren't available on local government websites, but that the public either doesn't know they exist, or can't find them.

What is Digital Exclusion?

It's when people in a municipality have limited access to existing or emerging technologies and technological resources. It can be difficult and time consuming for them to find information to help make important decisions and be involved in their communities. The same goes for government. There are major funding gaps present between larger cities and smaller cities ' yet the society's adoption of technology in rural and urban areas has put the pressure on small local governments to close the digital gap.

But, it can be costly and time consuming for small local governments to keep up to the digital standards of today. With tight staffing levels and already-tight budgets ' the risk of innovation is sometimes too great for local governments to take. But ultimately, not embracing technology may represent a great risk as an increasingly digital society could be further in the dark about every decision made at City Hall.

Thankfully, there are some creative and economical ways to make progress towards filling the rift.

Adopt cost effective technologies to get the public online

Even with high-speed internet, citizens sometimes still have trouble finding government information online. As citizens become digital natives, they expect to find information easily on the web. Local governments don't always have their information readily available for easy viewing.

Software exists today that helps Clerks and government employees create agendas and minutes in the most effective way and get information out to the public in an extremely timely manner. Governments can use this software to meet the demands of citizens and help close the information gap within their communities.

It's estimated that by 2021, 82% of all internet traffic will be from video. Naturally, getting public meetings online seems like a logical next step to improve citizen engagement. While smaller local government organizations haven't had the budget to make this investment in recent years, there are many new video streaming options designed for small local government organizations looking to provide council meeting online that are far more affordable.

Get other governments to help

Some larger cities have created applications that help make their governments more responsive to their citizens. Chicago has their SmartData platform that helps organize government data to address urban problems in their city and is planning on outsourcing it to other municipalities. This is incredible work that connects governments and their citizens on another level! And they have made their architecture, source code, and algorithms open source for other local organizations to use completely free.

The White House launched a program called ConnectHome that aims to reach 100 new communities in the United States by 2020. ConnectHome seeks to eliminate the digital divide in the United States by helping provide high-speed internet, low cost computers, and digital literacy courses to the unconnected. Communities are encouraged to apply to join the program and learn more on July 17th of 2017. Local governments can help out by promoting and supporting the cause.

Smaller governments should take advantage of this technology available to them as ways to close the digital divide between their own communities and the larger ones with more tools at their disposal.

Leverage your cities unique attributes to attract talent, and train existing staff

The expertise needed to implement and manage technology is missing at some smaller municipalities. Attract new technological talent by offering positions with larger leadership roles and mentorship opportunities to entice people with the skills necessary to tackle the digital divide in their city. It's arguably even more important to be able to train existing staff, since they have credible experience at your agency, and it costs less to sharpen your current employees' skills than hiring new employees.

Embrace technology change in your agency

Governments should never stop innovating how they communicate with their citizens. The four points above are a great start in the right direction. Using cloud services, for example, will help you to focus on what information you provide to the public instead of how you will get it out to them.

Start with these four steps and build from there. Remember to look at your agency critically and think about what can be done better to allow citizens better access to the information you have available.