Why a shift to the cloud will help politicians boost civic engagement

Wednesday - 1/8/2014, 2:54pm EST

Commentary by Tom Spengler
CEO and co-founder of Granicus

As more businesses and organizations move major applications to the cloud, government has been slow to keep up — and the reluctance to switch could have major implications for civic engagement overall.

Courtesy of Tom Spengler

According to an analysis of the Office of Management and Budget's spending data by IDC Government Insights, the federal government's IT budget, including spending on software-as-a-service (SaaS) technologies, has fallen by $1 billion between fiscal 2010 and 2014. That's a significant drop, and to date, the government has been moving sluggishly behind the private sector when it comes to switching major operations to the cloud. The inaction ignores the positive impact cloud computing can have on governing, especially when it comes to boosting civic engagement.

Cloud computing is undoubtedly beneficial for government — it reduces costs related to upgrades and system maintenance, cuts down on paper usage and increases the speed with which apps can be deployed. In a time of widespread budget cuts, it taps into the technical expertise of others in a short-staffed environment.

Take for example the local government of Walnut Creek, located near the San Francisco Bay area. They were able to save $34,000 per year with a platform designed to live stream and archive public meetings, reducing staff time and paper consumption.

Although thousands of government agencies at the local, state and federal levels currently use cloud technologies, including the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, many more have yet to embrace this technology. As a result, government at all levels is missing out on a valuable opportunity to interact with their constituents and boost tech-driven civic engagement.

Widespread mobile ownership means access

The number of Americans with access to mobile technology has jumped to astounding levels in the past few years. Nearly 60 percent of Americans own a smartphone, a staggering increase from 46 percent in February 2012. By 2015, experts predict 65 percent of Americans will own a smartphone, tablet or both.

Citizens are using these devices in ways government should harness, not ignore. They're sharing news stories, engaging with their communities, and organizing for civic engagement. A Pew Internet poll found 64 percent of Americans use their smartphones to read the news, 68 percent access a social networking site and 31 percent visit a local, state, or federal government website.

Online civic engagement solutions are the types of cloud computing applications that may have been difficult and expensive to deploy years ago, but today, government has no excuse to ignore citizen voices.

By launching cloud, web, mobile, and social technologies to more effectively engage with constituencies, governments can make it easier for citizens to have a proactive presence in their local, state or federal government. Leveraging apps and mobile devices, citizens can share ideas to improve communities and access a direct way to persuade legislators. Government leaders can track conversations and pull the data to access it in the cloud before they vote on key legislation.

The cloud gives all citizens a voice

Cloud computing can help government launch online forums, blogs, polls, discussions, social media initiatives and other crowdsourcing tools that can give citizens a platform to share their ideas, engage in debate, and let politicians know how they want their voice represented.

If politicians are willing to jump on board, cloud-based solutions, coupled with the widespread adoption of mobile devices, can help poll public opinion and drive up civic engagement in a major way. For example, "We the People" has created a platform that allows users to create and sign petitions on issues that matter the most to them. This technology makes government more open, transparent and accessible to constituents, increasing their level of civic engagement.

Still, this is only a start. There are many more opportunities for increasing civic engagement and one powerful tool is by moving to the cloud. Government leaders at every level should stop twiddling their thumbs when it comes to engaging with citizens on a broader level. The tools for increased civic engagement are already there — it's time for government to start listening.

Copyright 2013 by Tom Spengler. All rights reserved.


Tom Spengler is the CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency and citizen participation and author of "Governing in the Cloud."