top of page

The Role of Government in Digital Cultures


Cities have always been the hub of innovation. As the epicenter of culture, politics, and economy, cities are often seen as representational for their respective country's culture. And with the digital revolution reshaping our lives exponentially in this decade, it is not surprising that a city's digital culture is highly correlated to its public governance efforts.

But how do these things play into one another? Digital culture and a city's digital government, while they sometimes seem like they're not related, are actually closely linked. A city's digital government — how it uses technology, what it's pursuing and how it's prioritizing things — is impacting its overall digital culture as well. And this digital culture in turn can help or hinder the ways local government makes or enforces decisions.

So when it comes to the ways a city enforces its laws and other rules, it's important to know the decisions are being influenced by something outside of that city — the culture. The cultural context impacts how we see what a city is trying to accomplish.

A City's Digital Culture

A city's digital culture can be defined as:

the core values, beliefs and practices of its citizens that impact the use and adoption of digital technology

It's important to realize that a city's digital culture isn't one specific thing — it's a collection of different threads that often interact and interconnect with one another.

Overall, in order for a city's digital culture to thrive, the devices it uses to access information must be mobile and accessible to those who need them. This means that internet access and things like bandwidth are crucial. But so is education: Cities should work to encourage digital literacy by educating their residents on how technology can be useful.

With all of this being said, how does a city's digital culture actually impact its digital government? Well, the way a city's digital culture is organized can have an impact on things like:

  • How digitally mature it is

  • What types of technologies it gravitates towards

  • The types of technology it has adopted and more.

All of these factors can play into how local government makes and enforces decisions.

The City of Brno, Czech Republic

The city of Brno is one example of an agile government at work with a penchant for creative experimentation. It was in 2006 when the city of Brno, a small city of 220,000 people in the Czech Republic, embarked on its first civic innovation project. The project was titled "Brno iCity" and it aimed to improve citizen engagement while also improving municipal services with the use of all digital technologies. The project was quite successful, and in 2008 and 2009 two sequel projects were introduced - "iCity 2" and "iCity 3". Both of these projects were aimed to continue the digital transformation started with "iCity", while also improving on statistical data collection, citizen engagement and service delivery. These projects also led to a large network of young digital activists that emerged all over Brno, indicating a shift in local culture in favor of the use of new digital technologies.

Despite such a great start, the project was short-lived. This was largely due to the lack of political support from Brno's city council, who could not agree on a digital strategy for the municipality. In 2008 one of Brno's digital activists, Petr Štěpánek, even started a "Digital Democracy" initiative aimed at creating a civic platform for dialogue between citizens and local state officials. However, this movement grew slowly and only lasted until 2009.

The iCity project was also met with some criticism. Critics claim that in order to reduce the municipal budget, the project was successful only at cutting some costs rather than actually increasing revenue. The critics also claim that without proper governance, and without a good understanding of the needs of citizens, a city's digital culture can easily fall by the wayside.

The City of Philadelphia

In 2013, Philadelphia launched its digital government strategy to improve its digital services and push toward a more open, collaborative government. The vision of the government is to spread accessibility to information and resources, create greater transparency and efficient services delivery, as well as empower citizens to manage their own affairs.

In Philadelphia, people examined the city's digital culture and its relationship to its digital governance efforts.

The City of Philadelphia (pHL) has been a leader in public sector innovation for decades. To capitalize on its unique position in the Information Age, pHL has invested considerable resources in development of open data, mobile applications and websites, CCTV surveillance technology and urban planning efforts. For instance, since 2010 when it launched the award-winning, Philadelphia has been continuously ranked as the city with the most robust open data program in the country, according to a study by the Sunlight Foundation.

To understand the relationship between these two functions—digital culture and digital governance— they analyzed how the city's digital culture impacts its digital governance efforts. Notably, they used three measures of digital culture: (1) access to online content; (2) ease of Internet access; and (3) civic participation—the willingness to be involved in local governance. Using these three measures, they were able to examine how the digital culture and digital governance are correlated.

In particular, they considered two five year intervals: 2007-2011 and 2011-2016. During those five years, Philadelphia experienced tremendous growth in its economy and the accompanying digital infrastructure. This meant that both the digital culture and its corresponding digital governance efforts are different from each other. For instance, in 2007 when the city launched its open data program and in 2011 when it introduced its digital government strategy, the city's digital culture was low. But in 2016, Philadelphia ranked as one of the highest adopters of mobile technology—even higher than other large cities like New York City and Los Angeles.

This growth is no surprise given the city's booming economy. In fact, Philadelphia has been referred to as the most business-friendly city in America by Forbes and the 10th fastest growing economy by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. These two factors—economic motivation and an overall growth in digital infrastructure—can drive both positive and negative outcomes for a city's citizens and its public sector.

As the city's data collection capabilities continue to improve, it expects to provide more open access to information, especially on topics like poverty, education and crime. This is in line with its vision as well as its recent initiatives to improve digital services through technology such as mobile applications and apps. For example, the city's Earned by Philadelphia app allows citizens to submit comments and feedback on how to improve five city agencies: the Department of Education, Public Works, Recreational Services, Budget and Finance and Licenses & Inspections.

The City of Bogota Columbia

Bogota is one of Latin America's fastest growing megacities. It's home to about eight million people and about 650,000 technology jobs. It has a digital government designation as well as a digital culture.

Bogota isn't just a city that can make decisions based on data (unless it doesn't have enough data), they are also making decisions based on its culture. Imagine that. Bogota, Columbia — one of the biggest, most populated cities in Latin America — is influenced by something other than economic results and development plans.

"There has to be some connection between the data and culture, and people believe that's in culture," said James Quintero, head of Google's Transparency Program for Latin America. "I think that sounds crazy to many people." But Quintero sees this as an opportunity — one being created by Bogota's digital government.

Bogota has a digital culture, one that its people have been developing for years. As it begins to be a bigger part of how the city's own digital government is run, it's influencing the rest of what goes on in Bogota.

"You have a very unique challenge with cities like Bogota — very dynamic cities, very complex cities… and that's why there's an exciting opportunity to work with them," said Quintero.

The City of Chattanooga Tennessee

When Chattanooga, Tennessee decided to make a large push towards digital government back in 2009, it had a big impact on the city. That's because the city made it clear that it wanted to use technology to improve customer service and communication. This was one of the main reasons why they set up a government-run wi-fi network throughout the city. It also allowed them to have e-gov portals where people could access their bills or other documentation online.

As a result of Chattanooga's efforts, the city was able to utilize mobile apps that allowed people to pay their bills, check on their water usage, and access public safety information. But beyond this, Chattanooga's initiatives also made other changes: the city clearly had the right focus, one that was supported by others, which is how the city was able to receive funding for other initiatives. As a result of these changes, Chattanooga's digital culture was able to form and thrive.

And this goes for other cities as well — some examples include: Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles, California; and Phoenix, Arizona. and more.

As you can see from the examples above, how a city uses technology can impact its overall digital culture. And how a city's digital culture impacts its digital government is one factor that will help determine the conditions of its governance in the future.

The City of Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada

The City of Thunder Bay houses a diverse amount of industries, from manufacturing to retail, and has many opportunities for innovation. The City's goal is to connect the people and businesses within this community with the technology to help them succeed. The City of Thunder Bay is on a digital transformation, meaning that they are trying to advance the way in which they do business and operate.

Why a City's Local Government Impacts Its Digital Culture

The local government in any city has a great deal of power, specifically over the digital realm. A city's electrical grid, water, and sewer systems are all run in a very specific way by the local government. This is why when a city's digital culture becomes more prominent, the local government must change its own culture with it. For example: if the City of Thunder Bay decides to move towards using more software as a service (SaaS), rather than installing programs on its own servers (which is a lot less expensive and less time consuming), any aspect of that program will have to be standardized and centralized. This makes for better security and efficiency for the city. Changing the way in which they operate digitally will have a huge impact on the city as a whole.

How A City Overcomes The Changes - Montreal, Quebec Canada

The great news is that many cities have made these changes successfully. But what was their method? What helped them do so? One city that has done a phenomenal job of changing its culture towards utilizing more software as a service has been Montreal, Quebec's capital. It has openly communicated how much it changed the way it operated because of the advancement in technology. It purchased newer technology as opposed to "going green.

The city has done a great job of communicating this change to its citizens, and in doing so has made the city more transparent. This will help the citizens trust their government even more and feel as though they have a hand in the changes.

Montreal's Success: Changes and Gains

The success of Montreal was not an accident. They saw the need to change and had to do so if they wanted to stay competitive in today's digital world. The city hired a new chief information officer, implemented an open-book accounting policy, and implemented a "strong" IT strategy. All of these things were done in order to make the city more efficient. The committee for information systems management had to change many aspects of the city's IT practices, including the way in which its payroll was processed. Ultimately, the result was that within a year they had saved $10 million dollars. This is incredible considering how many other cities were unable to make such a radical change.

A City's Digital Culture: How To Change For The Better

What can Thunder Bay and other cities do to become more efficient and future-proof? It is important for them to look at what Montreal did. It is important for them to be transparent with their citizens about the changes they are going through. This may mean a few road blocks at first, but the long-term benefits will far outweigh any issues that arise. It is important for cities to realize that advancing their digital culture isn't just about being "cool", but is about making the city a better place for everyone.

The City's new Digital Strategy

If the City implements many elements of its digital strategy, it can help develop a more sustainable digital economy, increase productivity, better compete with other cities, and inspire innovation and creativity within the community. The digital strategy from the City of Thunder Bay shows that the way government operates digitally can impact a city's digital culture and overall economic growth.

Let me know what you think in the comments!


bottom of page