How APIs are Fueling Digital Citizen Engagement

Written by Ben Sebree

Why APIs are the linchpin at the convergence of software stack integration and omnichannel data management.
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A municipality’s citizen engagement strategy is only as strong as its data and insights. Local leaders can not pursue initiatives and champion the needs of their citizens without knowing what their citizens want and need. For this reason, the worst phrase an elected official can hear from its administrative leaders is, “we have that information, but we can’t get to it.”

Today, municipalities have the power to collect citizen-supplied feedback, public demographic and census data, and even digital system interaction data, yet siloed systems and antiquated technologies that don’t allow for data sharing and insightful reporting are creating barriers to public insights that progressive communities want and need.

The bottom line: In your community, when it comes to your citizens, and your data, shouldn’t you be able to access it from any of your systems?

The Need for a Data Share Model

Many of today’s municipalities rely on multiple, disparate systems to execute their administrations, yet those systems frequently leverage similar information. For example, citizen request management software, court systems, website content management systems, agenda management software, and calendars are just a small sampling of the tech being used to compile citizen information needed to execute civic responsibilities and pursue local initiatives.

While each system is designed to serve the needs of a specific municipal department and its primary functions, redundant information inevitably lives within each system, creating duplicative tasks when systems don’t “talk” to one another. Not only does duplicative data entry mean time-consuming manual data management, it exponentially increases the risk of maintaining stale or inaccurate information when separate departments and staffs are responsible for maintaining the same data in different tools. In an era where local government budgets and resources have never been leaner, and local governments are being tasked to do more with less, such inefficiencies stand in the way of quality and relevant citizen engagement and public service.

Enter APIs

A critical piece of technology fueling the interconnectivity necessary for digital innovation are application programming interfaces (API). These connectors allow for the sending and receiving of data between independent systems and software applications and the streamlining of workflows and elimination of barriers between critical software stack components. Think of the efficiency possibilities of adding a press release to your local government website via your content management system (CMS), and that single action automatically triggering Facebook and Twitter social media posts regarding the release, as well as the email distribution of the press release to a pre-determined list of media contacts. This model represents omnichannel communications, the basis of content as a service (CaaS), and the future of local government citizen engagement.

Engaging Citizens with CaaS

Omnichannel communications are the future of citizen engagement. Your citizens today are tethered to multiple devices and communicating with people and brands around them using more platforms and digital tools than ever before. Citizens today want to chat with a customer service representative on a tablet, receive a confirmation email of their purchase on their smartwatch, and post an image of the product they purchased to all their social media channels without duplicating the post creation in each system.

CaaS is a content and data management model that allows entities to access, manipulate, and share content from a single, integratable repository. The platforms used to manage CaaS models rely on an API-first data integration model and allow entities to manage content in an agnostic way while efficiently distributing messages via multiple channels using a single publishing system. The secret to CaaS lies in the integration between a back-end data repository and front-end display layer. CaaS publishing tools enable content to be formatted appropriately for any communication channels from text-only in-office kiosks to your local government website.

Build Once, Display Anywhere

APIs are the linchpin at the convergence of software stack integration and omnichannel data management. They enable access to software services that have traditionally been siloed and allow content administrators with little time and a growing number of communication channels to manage to build content once and distribute it to multiple systems.

Thanks to advancements in API technology and modern software architectures, it is easier than ever to integrate multiple data systems. Simultaneously, there has been a paradigm shift in the conversation about the importance and necessity of single source data repositories. Recently, many organizations looked for an enterprise system that would meet all their needs. Today, many local governments are moving to a data management “ecosystem” model—that is, a network of various data systems that interact with one another, sharing data seamlessly and reducing duplicative data management and the possibility of error. Sometimes called a “best of breed” approach, this integrated software stack model reflects the idea that you should choose the best data system for a specific functional task, rather than trying to find one system to rule them all. It’s a model that municipalities with limited resources are beginning to embrace successfully.

Integration Methods for Municipalities

Municipal IT leaders looking to take the first steps toward a data management ecosystem model should become familiar with the three types of most common integration methods:

  • Direct integration – Using APIs to allow for the distribution of functionality across systems needed to create critical citizen engagement experiences across devices and platforms.
  • Third-party integration apps – New integration apps such as Zapier allow content managers to connect various data sources with little technical skill and programming capabilities required. Such connections occur using APIs, but the third-party applications act as intermediaries for non-coders.
  • Import and export models – While an API can streamline data sharing, depending on the systems and scope of a project, it may not be necessary. Depending on how frequently you need to transfer data, a traditional CSV exported data file may enable the type of accurate data transfer required to mitigate manual, redundant data entry.
  • Manual data entry – This is the least effective data sharing model, so consider it your last resort. Still, a comprehensive list of data integration methods is incomplete without an acknowledgment that in many cases, manual data entry is still possible, though, as mentioned, typically not recommended as manual data entry is time-consuming and more likely to introduce errors into your data.

Choosing the Right Data Integration Method for Your Municipality

How best to integrate your civic data will depend on three factors: frequency of data transfer, availability of integration tools, and technical savvy.

  • 1. Frequency.  The frequency with which your data is updated and you need to share it among components of your software stack is a critical factor in determining the ideal integration approach for your local government. If your community hosts a single, significant community event every year and you use an external management system for it, it’s probably not incredibly crucial for your system to integrate directly with your donor database. Therefore, a one-time import should suffice. On the other hand, if you have a robust email communication program, you’d be best served by having this system communicate directly with your data repository. The same strategy applies to online giving. When data needs to move frequently between systems, it will save staff time and increase accuracy for those systems to have a direct connection via APIs.
  • 2. Availability of Tools. When you are shopping for third-party software, take into consideration which applications, if any, are API friendly. If you envision yourself building a robust data ecosystem, then ask prospective vendors how open their API access is to third-party developers. That said, it is not worth using a poor-quality tool just for the benefits of integration. The most important things to consider are how the system will affect your users, and how usable and useful it is for managing your data. It may be worth using a more time-consuming data import process for a noticeable gain in citizen consistency or productivity in other areas.
  • 3. Access to Tech-Savvy Staff. Integrating data systems requires technical competence and strong organizational skills. If your IT department lacks an internal resource who can confidently lead the process and troubleshoot issues, you may want to consider an alternative data integration method.

By breaking down data silos and sharing data laterally across your software stack, you can streamline your internal administration and improve your citizen experience with your digital systems—which is to say; you can work more efficiently while enhancing citizen interactions with your local government.

CivicPlus has developed the first API-enabled headless content management system designed exclusively for local governments. Click below to learn how Engage 6 can fuel your citizen engagement strategy.

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