Are apps the answer?
As we mentioned recently, social media and digital engagement is becoming an ever more prevalent part of life for people and should be for local government too. The numbers don’t lie: more people than ever have access to the internet, and access to us in the public sector digitally.
Not to labour a point, but also as we said, one of the key drivers for making this happen is the humble mobile phone, or to be more precise its modern day descendant; the smart phone. Offering texts, 3G web access, wi-fi connectivity and even, shock horror, phone calls, these wonders of the modern world are becoming an essential tool for surviving life in the modern world. Yes, you can get by without one, but it becomes far, far easier when you have one.
For example, when I was growing up arranging a night out could sometimes be a chore. You would have to arrange in advance with all of the people going when the date would be, what time to meet, where at the station to meet, where you were going, buy the paper and read reviews to find out the best places to eat, phone the ticket office a few weeks ahead to get tickets sent out to you or maybe even visit a box office, then turn up early and hang around until you think everyone who agreed to turn up has.
Today these days all can be done in a matter of minutes: a group e-mail or text (maybe setting up a Doodle if working out a date gets complicated), a look at Top Table to find somewhere good to eat with deals on, TfL to work out your route and Twitter or a simple phone call to let people know how you are getting on. And all of this magic happens through the wonder that are apps.
And this is where the ramble gets back to local government. As ever, we see to be behind the times a bit when it comes to technology, and are only just beginning to wake up to the power of the web application, which is a surprise as outside of the office we have been using them for some time. More and more teams are coming to me and saying “we want to develop an app”, especially in the last few weeks (I wonder why).
It’s usually at that point that I throw in the most annoying question I know; why?
Having experienced the web boom and the dot-com bubble, I can see a lot of parallels here. The internet is a good idea, my service is a good idea: therefore we need a website! Thus sprang forth some of the most pointless websites I have ever seen, most of which were out of date before they were launched and then weren’t maintained or developed for six or seven years until they quietly faded into the background. A website is for life, not just for Christmas.
I’m seeing the same thing happening with apps. They are the new big thing; people are making fortunes on the back of them, and they are coming out constantly. After arguing that we should engage more digitally and use the powerful tools at our disposal, why am I then putting up blocks on so many requests?
The answer is simple: most teams simply haven’t thought it through. They want an app developed because it’s fashionable and trendy to talk about apps, not because they have something useful in mind. The kudos of being able to say ‘we developed an app for local government’ is there, regardless of whether or not the app was any good.
Apps, like any other tools, need to fill a gap or address an issue. Successful developments need to find something that is difficult and make it easy, or enable you to do something that you thought was restricted to the world of science fiction. Fix My Street did exactly that, allowed you to report an issue in your street which needed fixing. The Hills Are Evil app will help users find a route from point to point with the fewest hills or obstacles, while Looking Local from Kirklees Council pulls a lot of this and more together.
Apps, like all digital engagement methods, are useful tools but are not themselves the answer. Anything which starts with a solution before identifying the problem is destined to failure: all IT should be there to make doing things easier, not to just test out some possibilities. If they are a useful tool then use them, but don’t just for the sake of it. After all, you wouldn’t get a hammer out and then start thinking about what you can hit (even if everything starts looking like a nail as soon as you grab one).
The recent Local by Social events have explored apps a little and started coming up with suggestions, it’ll be interesting to see how many of these are developed into a mature tool. For all of those thinking of going down the app route I’d ask you to take a couple of minutes to think about these things:
- Why an app?
- What exactly will it do (be specific)
- Are there other things out there that do this already?
- Is the problem you are solving an existing one or one you have made up?
- Will maintaining this add to already busy workloads?
If you can answer all of these and are happy with them by all means go ahead, just remember to ask yourself one final question: would you use it yourself?
You might be surprised at your answer.