Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

What’s Old is New: How Citizens Communicate with Government

Social media enthusiasts (myself included) let out a big huzzah recently at the results of a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled Government Online.

The report, like a similar one several years ago, looks at how citizens communicate and interact with their government. This study focused specifically on online contact with government, the use of social media to interact with government and citizen use of open government data.
Open Government Data and Social Media Take Hold

For social media and open government proponents, the findings are exciting:

Efforts by government agencies to post their data online are resonating with citizens. Fully 40% of online adults went online in the preceding year to access data and information about government (for instance, by looking up stimulus spending, political campaign contributions or the text of legislation).

Citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third (31%) of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.

This is great stuff. It means that efforts to open up government data sets and provide them to citizens in easily consumable formats is starting to pay off. It also means that government takeup of social media tools is providing people with more options, and more opportunities to connect with their government.

Phones Still Reign Supreme

But perhaps the most important piece of information in this report (at least in my mind) is less obvious. Tucked into the introductory section, which many people probably jump right past to get to the findings, is this little nugget of information:

As we found in our last survey of e-government in August 2003, telephone contact is the overall most preferred contact method when people have a problem, question or task involving the government. Currently, 35% of Americans say they prefer using the telephone in these circumstances, a figure that is relatively unchanged from the 38% who said so in 2003.

That’s right. Most people prefer to contact their government using the plain old telephone – more than using a website, or sending an e-mail or even going to a government office in person. The granddaddy of communication technologies still outpaces all others when it comes to citizen interaction with government. And that preference hasn’t changed during the time since the first tweet or since Facebook left the dorm room and went mainstream.

These results are impacted somewhat by the inclusion of both people who are regular online user and those who are not. Looking only at Internet users and those who access the mobile web does show a preference for online communication with government over the telephone, but not by much. And even for those who are regular Internet users with broadband connections and access to the mobile web, the ordinary telephone is still the hotness:

…it is notable that the telephone remains relatively popular even among the technologically proficient, as one-third of home broadband (32%) and wireless internet users (32%) say that the telephone is their favorite means of contact when they need to get in touch with government.

The Takeaway for Open Government and Social Media Advocates

It might be natural for those advocating for the release of more open government data (to build more open government apps) and the use of social media by government to be discouraged by these findings. But I think that citizen preference for using the telephone to contact their government presents some unique opportunities for the Gov 2.0 movement.

As I’ve said many times before, open government data and APIs make a wonderful foundation for cutting edge telephone applications. This was the philosophy behind the application I built last year that uses the Open Leg API from the NY Senate. This application is available through multiple channels, including the plain old telephone – the phone channel for this application is available in both English and Spanish.


The platforms available for building telephone applications are enormously more sophisticated than they were just a few years ago. With tools like Voxeo’s Tropo platform, its relatively easy to build sophisticated applications that serve multiple communications channels from a single code base. It’s never been easier or less expensive to build telephone applications. Ever.

The volumes of open government data and APIs that are now available make the case for building cool telephone applications that much more compelling. More open government data = more cool applications.

Additionally, as the worlds of telephony and social media converge, opportunities for what I call “cascading modality” will continue to present themselves. Take the case of Internet users discussed above who are comfortable with the mobile web. Even those people may still find the telephone a convenient way to connect with their government. These people are prime candidates for cascading modality.

Imagine a citizen out for a leisurely stroll with their dog in their neighborhood when they notice some graffiti on a sidewalk. One day soon that citizen mightwill be able to send out a short tweet to a twitter application like so:

@twitterbot #graffiti 999-555-1212

Their tweet would have their location embedded in it, and would initiate a phone call to 999-555-1212. The Twitter application would connect the citizen with a government call center and use CTI to pass on the type of incident and the location to the operator. The citizen would then talk to the operator and give other relevant details to start a service request.

At the end of the day, one of the primary justifications for open government and Gov 2.0 is to make it more efficient for people to find out about how their government works and easier to interact with government officials.

The importance of the telephone in citizen communication with government must help guide the kinds of data and APIs that governments make available to citizens and developers. Additionally, as governments continue to look at social media as a way to engage and interact with citizens, they must carefully consider how telephone communication fits into this strategy.

The ordinary telephone has been with us for over 130 years. If the findings of the latest Pew Internet report are any indication, it’s not going away any time soon.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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