Research Spotlight: Closing the Gap or Widening the Divide: The Impacts of Technology-Enabled Coproduction on Equity in Public Service Delivery

Smart technologies, such as IoT and smart city management apps, can provide real-time and location-specific data that facilitates timely decision making in public resource distribution. It may also distort the distributional equity as many low-income may participate less. Existing research on technology-enabled citizen participation in public service provision shows mixed findings. Most studies find that historically disadvantaged groups (minorities) are less likely to use web-based platforms or mobile apps to participate in public services, such as reporting service problems to governments via 311, due to the lack of education and limited access to the internet or smart technologies. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “digital divide”. In contrast, other studies have shown that using smart information communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile apps, encourages minorities to participate in public services because the prevalence of smartphones and convenience of mobile apps (you can use mobile apps anywhere and any time you want).  

However, to date, little is known about how technology-enabled citizen participation affect the distributional outcomes of public services. In a recent study, we fill this knowledge gap by investigating how citizen participation on the 311 service request system (including web and mobile portals) affects the equity in service restoration after hurricanes in the City of Tallahassee. Particulalry, we test if the utilization of 311 service request system increases the disparity in service delivery between the minority and minority communities or bridges the gap.

Like many local governments in the United States and Europe, the City of Tallahassee utilizes a two-way e-governance tool called “DigiTally”, which provides a “311” service request platform that can be accessed both online and through mobile apps. The city government encourages citizens to submit non-emergency service requests, such as power outages, broken street lights, potholes, missed garbage pickup etc, through DigiTally. Both the government and citizens can monitor the service delivery process on DigiTally, which helps to improve public service efficiency and customer satisfaction. In 2018, a category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Michael, resulted in a city-wide power outage. Power service was one of the critical services that the city government and its utility were trying to recover after the hurricane. Citizens who were out of power can report their outages to the city through “DigiTally”, which helped city utility locate power outages and accelerate service restoration.

We utilize a novel fine-scale dataset combining big-data from smart meters to accurately capture household-level power outage status, all service request and recovery data from “DigiTally”, and American Community Survey data. Our empirical results show that: (1) Among those who did not participate in DigiTally, the power restoration time is significantly longer for historically disadvantaged groups; (2) Minority group are more likely to use DigiTally to report power outage; and (3) Participation in DigiTally narrowed the equity gap in power restoration after the hurricane. 

This study has both theoretical contribution and practical implications for e-governance and disaster recovery. Our findings suggest that emerging e-governance ICTs have provided a new channel for those historically disadvantaged groups to interact with the government during disasters. These disadvantaged groups have greater needs for service restoration than people with high socio-economic status. Since access to smartphones and internet has become less of an issue today, the disadvantaged groups are more likely to utilize these smart technologies when they have less political capital or financial capital to offset difficulties during disasters. Their utilization of smart technologies has helped them gain more attention during disasters, which bridges the equity gap of service delivery.

Corey Kewei Xu is a Ph.D. candidate in Florida State University’s Public Administration program. This post is based on Corey and Dr. Tang’s newest publication, which you can learn more about here. You can find out more about Corey here.

Dr. Tian Tang is an assistant professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. This post is based on Dr. Tang’s and Corey’s newest publication, which you can learn more about here. You can also learn more about Dr. Tang’s research here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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