06 January 2023

Democracy Technologies: What’s the main problem that Zencity is working to address?

Michael Simon: We define the problem that we’re working on as trust in government. It’s complicated, because everything is twisted together. The needs of stakeholders, citizens and the residents that participate are so different and yet overlapping. As such, there’s not just one silver bullet. 

DT: And how would you summarise your approach?

Michael: We started off providing one point solutions to single problems, then a second and a third. But I think we came to the conclusion that because all our customers were doing so many things in concert, we should be matching them. We decided to change our business model to be a bit like Microsoft Office. You get Office and it comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc. That is now our approach to citizen engagement — putting a multimodal solution in the hands of our customers, as opposed to one thing at a time.

In February we are formally launching a new suite called Zencity 360, which stems from that belief that the challenge of increasing trust in government is complicated and needs a comprehensive solution.

DT: Can you describe this ‘multimodal’ solution in more detail?

Michael: The way we see it, there’s four needs that we come across — from London to Lemont, Illinois, from big cities to small towns across the world. And we look at those needs as sort of concentric circles.

The first is the people who are directly utilising government services. It might be people calling 911 for an emergency, someone who goes to City Hall for a building permit, or someone who’s trying to get their trash collection problem solved. Whatever the problem is, they’re consumers of government services. So we ask ‘how can we build a customer centric approach that improves the quality of service in each of those transactions?’ That’s the inner circle.

The next is the more passive stakeholders in government — those who might have a particular interest in a plan or project or policy. It might be because you’re going to put a bike lane down the High street, next to me and I really care about that. I’m not involved in government, but if you’re going to do something that impacts me, then I might have a lot to say about that.

The third circle out is the passive population that simply lives in the neighbourhood. I’m a consumer of something like policing in that respect. Like I see a cop at the corner and wave in the morning as I walk to work, but I’m not going to report a crime. I’m not applying for a building permit.

The final concentric circle is the broad stakeholders who care about the city, whether or not they live there. These are the people who work in the city and commute in and out, who own businesses, who visit as tourists, etc.

What we’ve done is develop a product suite mapped to those four circles. We’ve got a customer service module that provides experience surveys to track and measure the customer service the government provides. We have a product called ‘Engage’ that is all about bidirectional collaboration around a specific project in a neighbourhood. We’ve got a product called ‘Community Surveys’ which is about tracking how every neighbourhood across a city feels about how things are going in their city generally. Like a classic annual community survey, but done consistently. Then the final is what we call ‘organic’, which is about listening on social media to help understand what stakeholders are talking about — what their concerns are, what they’re happy about, etc.

DT: And what sort of uptake have Zencity’s services had?

Michael: We’ve just crossed over 300 state, local and provincial governments that we work with around the world, which is an exciting milestone for us. That’s from cities like London, Chicago and Washington DC, all the way down to small towns of 10,000 people. About 85 percent of those are in the US, but we’re just starting to make headway in the UK and places like Australia and Canada. Entry into Europe has also been a big milestone. It’s been fun to work with a really diverse array of urban democracy oriented challenges from the really big to really small.

DT: How does that milestone play into your broader mission?

Michael: Our mission is to be the standard by which local governments measure their success and then improve upon it. So that 300 milestone is a great start. We’ve got the capitals of Canada, the US and UK as customers, but our goal is that that customer base would be able to look at each other and say, because we’re all using the same system of measurement and the same system of engagement, we can learn from each other — London can learn things from DC for example. They can look and say ‘well when DC did x, y change happened, why don’t we try doing x here?’ We want to be the one stop shop with a full suite of options that delivers a better outcome for our customers.

DT: What are the challenges to making this happen?

Michael: It’s largely about implementation. Governments are under-resourced. They’re filled with talented professionals but are also going through generational change. COVID in particular had people just stretched extremely thin, the weight of which was felt very profoundly in local governments, health authorities and others providing day to day services.

I think local government classically has been a place that avoided the vitriol of national politics. It was a place where neighbours could have constructive dialogue. People disagreed about stuff, but there wasn’t the same dynamic that there was in national politics where people are accusing each other of bad motives. I think that a combination of polarisation, changes in the media, the pandemic, etc, has made even local governments, which used to be more trusted, take a big hit. The trust is eroding and the level of intensity has risen. It’s made things more difficult.

Part of our philosophy is that by lowering the barriers to participation and making it possible to participate in a number of different ways, it levels the playing field and makes it easier to have more rational voices heard, while contextualising louder voices.

There is a very strong correlation between high marks on customer service and high confidence in institutions. Our theory of change is that by improving those micro-transactions, you actually boost trust in the institution because it accumulates. So for example, I called the police. They showed up on time. They were responsive and took my concerns seriously. They provided me with transparency and updated me as things progressed and my problem was solved. I think that we have this general bias as humans that negativity is very weighty, but positivity is also very weighty.

There’s a lot of small things these institutions can be doing that can really move the needle on the trust issue.

DT: What sort of differences are there operating in the government market, compared to other markets?

Michael: One of the great things about selling to governments is the openness. For example, when Coca-Cola comes up with a great idea, their incentive is to keep it close to their chest and make sure that Pepsi doesn’t find out. But governments are not really competitive with each other. So for example, New York City rolled out a home grown solution in the police department to do automated follow up surveys for emergency calls. Then they went to the major national gathering of public safety agencies and gave a presentation about it. All of a sudden, every other agency in the country was like ‘I want to do that too’.

DT: And finally, are there any trends that you are particularly excited about?

I think the pandemic caused an acceleration of existing trends. People saw their government could adapt quickly — like they had to. We had to go to virtual meetings. We had to do all this stuff. People might have assumed that nothing could ever change, but now see it changing, which in turn has accelerated expectations. I think it’s created a ton of demand for ways to be more responsive and to make your interaction with your government feel more like your interaction with Amazon — where like, you order something, get a notification when it’s shipped, and a notification when it arrives. A kind of automated, personalised transparency for government services.

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