Local Government Magazine

Google: Building a digital future for local government

These three things I know.

Ross Young
Ross Young

Ever wondered why the links on your Google search results are blue? Not just any old blue but that particular shade of blue? That’s because good old Google, as it does with pretty much most things, tested the bejesus out of blue-to-green hues until it could home in on the most popular shade among users.

That’s the Google way. But is it how councils operate too? Not so much in fine-sliced micromanaging such slivers of detail, but in fixating first and foremost on what customers and communities want. And then, but only then, serving it up in spades.

Ross Young carries the grand title of public policy and government affairs for Google Australia New Zealand. A keynote speaker at the 2015 Annual ALGIM conference, he’s tech-savvy and smart and could, no doubt, talk the hind leg off a herd of techno-donkeys.

Instead, in an interview with Local Government Magazine he chooses to emphasise the core thinking behind any such innovations: the reasons why people want them.

His three-part heads-up for local authorities makes this crystal clear. Putting the user first, he says, is the bedrock on which technology decisions must be made. “Because then generally you head in the right direction. And a key component of that is really looking at the type of problem you’re trying to solve.”

Take, for example, the Manaiakalani Trust in Auckland, he says, a cluster of 12 schools sharing a vision to lead future-focused learning in connected communities.

“Rather than simply handing out a device to every child they said, ‘What do we want to do? We want to learn, we want to create and we want to share’. Then they asked themselves how technology could help them achieve that.”

So it’s about going back to some of the underlying principles – a point amply made in the joint SOLGM / ALGIM report Technologies for the 21st century: Fit for the digital future published in August this year.

Next up: Ross urges councils to focus on opportunities. Yes, of course it’s important to assess risk but if that’s the only thing we assess, we miss out on looking at opportunities to make the world a better place.

New Zealand is starting to write a pretty good infrastructure story, he says.

“We’ve seen some positive investment in ultra-fast broadband and in the rural broadband initiative – which have provided really good internet connectivity.

“We’ve also seen some great work done by How (N4L) in connecting up many schools.”

Now, he says, the trick lies in picking up on the opportunities available. And councils have a key role in helping make the most of that themselves and helping their communities do the same.

“It’s important to have a balanced approach because that’s what users want: they want a better world and your job is to do your best to try and create that.”

Finally, in Ross’ view, it behoves us all to remember the oft-quoted Amara’s law: that it’s human nature to tend to overestimate the effect of any new technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

“Trying to predict the future in technology is challenging and everyone in the world is both trying to predict it and trying to create it,” he says, “and that’s what makes it a fun and enjoyable sector to work in.”

Action plan

Three key things that local authorities can do

1. Get online

Make sure you can connect and engage with people in an effective way.

Whether it’s swimming lessons or online payments, it’s about making sure people can connect with you as easily as possible. Have your services available on mobile devices. Make the user interface simple, intuitive and accessible to the many different types of people that live in your area.

Then up the game by engaging on social media as well. If someone comments on, say, a mayor’s YouTube clip, make sure someone from council responds. Let people know you’re listening to them.

Look for ways in which technology can help give people in your community a strong democratic voice. If Google’s Hangout on Air works for the Pope, chances are it may work for your mayor too. And it’s free.

2. Lead by example

Okay, it’s challenging to experiment in the public sector but people’s expectations are growing so give it a go. Local businesses may take notice when you try something new and smart councils can lead transformation in their own communities.

3. Have open data

This one speaks for itself. As much as possible, let other people use your data to solve other problems.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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