Can All City Services Fit on One App?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

MyCivic Apps has attracted a number of Southern California cities with its all-in-one mentality.

MyCivic Apps wants to become a one-stop shop for local government services, and at least 16 cities in California have received their own branded apps.

Issue reporting, news feeds, calendars, bill paying and business directories offering customer rewards are all features municipalities can elect to include.

No two MyCivic apps are exactly the same, and interface buttons are interchangeable depending on the services folded in.

“We’re trying to keep everything in one place,” founder T.J. Sokoll said in an interview. “And the most valuable real estate right now is the real estate on people's phones.”

A stockbroker turned app developer, Sokoll wants to simplify interactions between citizens and their local governments.

Instead of calling in to request graffiti abatement and then wondering if help will come, residents can report the vandalism via their city’s app, submit geolocated photos of the crime in real-time and check back to see how their case is being handled.

MyCivic Apps 3.0 launched last week, and one of the more sought-after features is the business directory “with economic development becoming so important for these cities,” Sokoll said.

In Southern California’s Orange County, the city of Garden Grove added a function to promote its weekly farmers market and teamed up with its local Chamber of Commerce on a Buy In Garden Grove initiative to create new revenue-generating opportunities.

Business permits can be easily downloaded, and local businesses all have profiles on the app their owners can log in and claim to make changes—adding deals, hours of operation and contact information. Ownership is verified and, unlike crowdsourced-based services like Yelp, no public reviews allowed. The app allows for customers to provide feedback to businesses directly.

Owners can indicate they have an app account with a sticker in their business window, which also helps promote MyCivic Apps publicly. Another Orange County city, Aliso Viejo, lacks a business license program, so the business directory acts as the official database for all businesses in the city.

MyCivic’s team develops a project plan alongside key city departments and brings them in during the testing phases. City staff is trained in the app, and an administrative dashboard tracks metrics showing how municipal campaigns and initiatives are faring once the app is live.

“In every city, we penetrate through a different department,” Sokoll said. “And usually the person who champions the app gets the most benefit.”

Sometimes it’s a parks and recreation department looking for a better way to promote its events and others it’s not a department at all—school districts having taken an interest in MyCivic Apps issue reporting to show from a litigation standpoint they’re working to monitor parent and teacher concerns.

A staff feature reduces government employee workloads by allowing them to redirect call-ins to departments in the app. From there, citizen requests are sent to the appropriate official and, if they’re in the field, they can change the issue status from “new” to “pending” to indicate to the user and other staff members it’s being handled.

City leadership can also have its own page with clickable photos.

“Mayors all love seeing their picture in the app, so that always goes over well,” Sokoll said.

In the age of Twitter and other big social platforms, news has a tendency to inundate people whether it’s relevant to their lives or not, Sokoll said. So the MyCivic Apps news and calendar RSS feeds are designed with two-way communication in mind.

In Los Angeles County, the city Diamond Bar, feeds include updates from the city website, the police department and other local organizations. Users can tap to add items of interest to their in-app calendars.

Whether the city wants to send out a mass alert or respond to a single resident’s report, that’s done through push notifications, according to Sokoll, who said those notifications have a 95 percent read rate.

The Orange County city of Laguna Niguel sends out regular traffic updates using geolocated ZIP codes to reduce unwanted notifications for outside users, and a circle can be drawn on an in-app map to isolate push notifications about major delays or ramp closures to a single stretch of road.

In Riverside County, the city of Palm Desert is being brought on board, Sokoll said, and nearby Cathedral City is in talks with the app developer.

MyCivic Apps boasts clients outside California as well, including Oregon City, Oregon, and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

The company constantly seeks feedback from its clients for redesigns that cost nothing extra because cities are “constantly evolving” and the “mobile landscape is changing so quickly,” Sokoll said.

“Obviously, there is a lot of pullback when we first come to these cities where people have worked for 15 to 20 years, and they’re not used to the technology,” he said. “Cities get more excited when they start to see the benefits.”

Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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