Magazine Column 2

September 2016

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

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

As we all know, that scenario isn’t something out of “Buck Rogers,” even though technology seems to be developing at warp speed.

Government is smart to hang back in the rapidly evolving world of electronic wizardry.

It worked well with social media, where the private sector sorted out the best platforms. The same thing has happened with mobile: let the local coffee shop figure out the best payment app before investing public dollars in the technology.

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.

Just stand in a check-out 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.

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 tablet computers.

That last point is important, because when we think about mobile, it’s not just smartphones. The use of tablets has skyrocketed over the past five years, whereas the ownership of laptops and desktops has basically plateaued among U.S. adults.

This is also 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, according to Pew, its data also showed that a little more than half of U.S adults who earn $30,000 or less a year own a smartphone. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults in that income bracket own tablets.

Affordable technology and data plans means we’re seeing greater mobile utilization and engagement from young people and rural users.

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 truly study your constituents, you might find smartphone ownership is at a much higher level than you anticipated.

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

  • Student financial aid applications by mobile device broke 50 percent for the first time last year, peaking again this year at 54 percent.
  • Almost nine in 10 visits (84 percent) to come from mobile, and 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 those, too, continue to trend up.

If you are overwhelmed with where to begin, consider using focus groups or surveys to gauge consumer interest. A little self-reflection might also 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.

Nowadays, he or she might have to visit several 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.

Maybe there’s a way for the various state agencies to create one form that can be completed 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 some 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.

Meanwhile, some services and forms will always lend themselves better to a laptop or desktop, and government can’t completely 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.

There’s a time and place for everything, though, so let’s just hope our dad turned off his phone, left it in his truck, and enjoyed the great outdoors with his son.