With Smartphones predicted to account for almost 50% of mobile devices in the U.S. by the end of the year, it is perhaps unsurprising that the mobile applications market is set to reach $17.5 billion in value or that ‘apps’ are becoming a key component of digital strategy. For businesses, apps offer a fantastic means to deliver service, sell products and to build brand image (see Lynsey Abernethy’s great post on the subject), yet for governments the opportunities may actually be more profound.

Although the public sector has historically lagged behind its private sector counterparts in the digital domain, web-based services offer two major benefits over other traditional channels – significantly reduced cost-to-serve (up to 100x cheaper when compared to the face-to-face channel) and greatly improved customer experience. Apps delivered via ‘always with me, always connected’ devices, take these benefits a step further, enabling real time participation and communication between citizens and government agencies, some examples of which are outlined here:

  1. Gathering information from citizens: GoRequest – available on both the iTunes store (for iPhone) and Google Market (for Android), GoRequest allows citizens to report local issues such as graffiti, potholes and street-light outages; using the GPS features of their smartphones to automatically pinpoint the location of the problem. Citizens are able to report problems with minimal effort (no need to switch on the computer or phone a local hotline), and are therefore less likely to forget, while local government is able to address the issue quickly, reducing complaints.Other potential uses – reporting bogus tradesmen, census gathering
  2. Encouraging desired behaviours from citizens: NHS Quit Smoking – again, available both for iPhone and Android devices, this app delivers motivational and health messages to the user while also tracking the money they have saved since their last cigarette. With smoking and obesity of particular concern to Health departments around the globe, apps such as this (which support and promote a healthier lifestyle) may help to address the root-causes of significant public spend.Other potential uses – fruit and veg consumption or exercise trackers, medical check-up reminders, car emissions and tax calculators
  3. Delivering public services directly: JobCentre Plus – another iPhone and Android app from the UK government, which allows the unemployed to search for local job vacancies directly from their smartphones. Although this application has suffered some teething problems it demonstrates that services can be delivered via a mobile device at a fraction of the cost of traditional face-to-face delivery. Research has also shown that smartphone use is ‘shrinking the digital divide’: a strong argument in favour of app-based digital-service delivery.Other potential uses – reserving library books, reporting minor crimes
  4. Delivering information to citizens: GP After Hours – an iPhone app from the Western Australia Dept. of Health which uses the GPS and maps functionality of the smartphone to find the nearest after-hours GP. This allows the user to save a considerable amount of time, and reduces the demand for call-centres offering the same service – delivering cost-savings for government.NYC Way – an iPhone and Android app, endorsed by the New York City Mayor’s Office. The application includes 32 different ‘miniature apps’ which harness open government data to provide specific location-based services, again using the GPS features of the smart-phone to locate the user, and display information relevant to their location within the city. Although the user-interface is somewhat unsophisticated, the benefit for the user is obvious. For governments, apps such as this one demonstrate that open-data can be made useful, rather than just ‘unleashed’ in raw format into the public domain.

    Other potential uses – local road-work alerts and alternate routes, hospital waiting times, local event information and reminders

While these examples demonstrate that governments are making positive in-roads to harness device-based apps, they must ensure that the initial mistakes of ‘e-Government’ aren’t repeated. While apps offer an opportunity to not only serve citizens, but to empower and engage them through real-time interactions, governments will be under considerable pressure to get it right first-time. In an era of unparalleled fiscal pressure, no punches will be pulled.