Gothenburg already boasts the development of several applications that engage with citizens. For example, the Anmäl hinder app – ‘obstacles report’ in Swedish. As the name suggests, people with disabilities can use the app to report physical obstacles or a lack of signage that prevent them from entering specific spaces.
In five steps only, a person fills in the report, which is received by the correct department within the city who will act to fix the issue. “We had to get our colleagues on board,” says Kim Lantto, Development Leader for the City of Gothenburg. “They don’t usually interact with the person they are helping. Now people who report the issues want to be engaged, that helps the person who is going to fix the problem too.”
A better user experience for everyone
With 300 issues reported last year, compared to 50 a year when the city only offered an online form on their website as an evaluation tool, the app has proven its usefulness. “This is user-centricity summed up,” says Anders Johansson, Senior Digital Strategist at the City of Gothenburg. “If we can help vulnerable groups, everyone benefits from it.”
For example, Johansson explains that the most common tap system, which uses one lever to regulate both the pressure and temperature, was first developed to help people with disabilities. “Now you see it everywhere because it makes the user experience better,” says Johansson.
The code for the Anmäl hinder app is open source, so cities that are inspired by this example can benefit from Gothenburg’s experience, as have done several Swedish towns for the Smarta Kartan app. Another successful app developed by Gothenburg, maps the exchange, sharing and offering of goods and services within the city area.
In search of the best solution
In the habit of sharing, Gothenburg is now looking at UserCentriCities partners to help them in their newest quest to involve citizens: developing a platform for digital democracy. “We’ll get back to the colleagues in UserCentriCities that have shared their knowledge and experience,” says Lantto. “We don’t want to start from the beginning. We need their experience to avoid traps, to be prepared for the issues we could struggle with.”
In terms of participation platforms, the market offers off the shelf options, or cities can develop their own or replicate existing solutions and adapt them to their needs. The private option can lock cities in and limits personalisation. On the other hand, developing your solution means more upfront costs as well as development costs for additional features and maintenance costs.
“Based on our research, the recommendation at the moment is to use the Decidim platform that is being used in Madrid, Barcelona and Helsinki, among others,” explains Lantto. Using Decidim means the city isn’t starting from scratch but can cater to its specific needs from a series of templates. The platform is flexible and clear and it also scores above 90% on accessibility.
“We are also considering technical aspects like open-source code and interoperability with platforms used by other cities around Europe,” adds Johansson.
Are these platforms worth all this work? Or do they end up being just for show? Madrid and Murcia, who shared their experience at the latest UserCentriCities Café, believe so. For example, Murcia has received 950 project proposals on its platform for ideas on spending 5.5 million euros.
“In the end, it’s all about making democracy more hands-on. And that’s a goal we must fulfil with the platform we choose,” says Johansson. So how do you engage with people? “An application has to be easy to get into so that you won’t want to leave it,” says Lantto. “That’s where a good platform makes sense and where a bad one loses.”
Genuine engagement around the question at hand also means creating a space for exchange and discussion. “The discussion is what’s most beneficial to the community,” says Lantto. In Gothenburg, people have already been able to submit their project ideas. Still, Lantto reveals that “the proposals are quite different from what the city is focusing on, or the issues it has been trying to solve.”
If you paint the picture of what the people are looking at and what the city is looking at, the pictures don’t match. “But there isn’t a way to create a dialogue on the tool we use,” explains Johansson. “So, there isn’t any exchange between the people who propose the project and those who evaluate them. That’s where a dialogue-based community-driven platform will make a difference.”
A place for inspiration
Gothenburg might be able to find inspiration for the best tool to connect its citizens to its politicians in the newly launched User-Centric Services Repository, a unique online inventory of best practices in user-centric local public services.
“With shrinking budgets, cities need to find a smarter approach to find solutions,” says Johansson. “The more we can benefit from each other’s work, the better.” And the repository is calling local and regional administrations (cities, municipalities, regions) to do precisely that by submitting their exemplary user-centric services.
With examples like Rotterdam’s Digitale Balie, a digital counter for public-service delivery through video calling; Madrid’s Madrid Te Acompaña, a mobile application for the elderly to find accompanying volunteers; Tallinn’s AvaLinn mobile application where citizens give feedback on city development plans; Milano Partecipa, Milan’s citizen participation platform, the User-Centric Services Repository will serve as a place for inspiration, knowledge-exchange and for highlighting genuinely user-centric digital services in Europe.
“If you give your knowledge to somebody else, you will gain a lot more in that exchange,” says Lantto. “We have to give a lot more. We are all civil servants, so we shouldn’t keep our ideas for ourselves. We should share them.”
Sharing, in this case, will also give local administrations a chance to win the UserCentriCities Awards, as services submitted in the repository will be automatically eligible for the prize. So, what are you waiting for? Share your best user-centric service and inspire other fellow cities!