Governments Can — and Should — Harness the Mobile Technology Revolution

Let’s say a dad and his son leave at dawn for their favorite fishing hole. As they swing into the state park, dad gets a text, looks at his smartphone and breathes a sigh of relief.

He would’ve hated for a game warden to cut the day short, so he’s thankful the state Conservation Department’s GPS system recognized his approach, automatically messaged him about his expired fishing license and allowed him to renew the license via his mobile device, right from the cab of his pickup.

No longer is that scenario something out of “Buck Rogers.”

Just stand in a checkout line for five seconds, or glance over at the person next to you in traffic. People have become accustomed to getting whatever information or services they need at the moment of need, no matter where they are or what time of day it is — and they expect that same access to government.

Government traditionally has hung back in the rapidly evolving world of electronic wizardry. In some cases, that cautious approach was smart.

It worked well with social media, where the private sector sorted out the best platforms. To a certain extent, the same was true of mobile: Let the local coffee shop figure out the best payment apps before investing public dollars in one technology or another.

But now it’s time for states to really get in the game with mobile. It is no longer an emerging technology, and government must meet citizens where they are, just like that progressive Conservation Department.

The Pew Research Center reported last year that more than two-thirds of U.S adults have smartphones, nearly double the amount from just four years prior. Meanwhile, Pew’s survey data indicated that 45 percent of U.S. adults own tablets.

That last point is important, because when we think about mobile, the market isn’t just smartphones. The use of tablets skyrocketed from 2010 to 2015.

This is a good time to clear up another potential misconception: Mobile usage is not confined to wealthy city folks.

Though smartphone owners tend to be younger, wealthier and highly educated, Pew’s data also showed that a little more than half of U.S adults who earn $30,000 or less a year own smartphones. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults in that income bracket own tablets.

If you’re an agency that serves the poor or unemployed, your mindset shouldn’t be, “We don’t need to invest in mobile, because our constituents can’t afford smartphones.” If you study your constituents, you might find smartphone ownership is at a much higher level than you anticipated.

Data from Arkansas illustrates the the popularity of the platform and the breadth of services government can offer through mobile:

  • Student financial aid applications through mobile devices exceeded 50 percent for the first time last year, peaking again this year at 54 percent.
  • Almost nine in 10 visits (84 percent) to IDriveArkansas.com, which provides road conditions, come from mobile. That figure has been well over 60 percent for the past few years.
  • Arkansas Game Check allows hunters to report their harvests via desktop, mobile app or call center. Last year, the mobile app edged out the call center 46 percent to 45 percent and continues to grow.
  • Auditor/unclaimed property filings hit 71 percent mobile in May 2015, and that figure, too, continues to trend up.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of services that could be offered via mobile devices.

If you are overwhelmed with where to begin, consider using focus groups or surveys to gauge constituents’ interest. A little self-reflection also can reveal the “pain points” that make it difficult for citizens to interact with your state electronically.

Think of an entrepreneur who is starting a small business. Right now, he or she might have to visit several agency websites and fill out potentially redundant forms to register the business, get a tax identification number, set up quarterly tax payments and apply for a license.

But maybe those state agencies could get together to create one form the entrepreneur could complete via mobile. They might even combine their back-end systems so the entrepreneur could make a single payment using a smartphone, with the correct amounts owed each agency distributed automatically.

Certainly there are technical issues to consider when thinking about a mobile environment. Systems, for instance, must account for different operating systems, the types of services each application can provide and the varying ages of users’ technology. Some services and forms will always lend themselves better to laptop or desktop access, and government can’t forget that segment of the population that still feels more comfortable with that technology.

Yet every indication suggests the continued growth of mobile as the preferred environment for online access. Consequently, government decision makers can’t ignore these devices as a key means for delivering government services.

There’s a time and place for everything, though. So let’s just hope that, after our dad renewed his fishing license, he turned off his phone and enjoyed the great outdoors with his son.