Creating Joy … at the DMV

How government can catch up with business in redefining the consumer relationship

Interview with John Hickenlooper

Customer service is predicated on the notion of choice. A customer who has a good experience with a brand will stick around. A customer who feels mistreated will bolt. But nowhere is this sense of free will more skewed than in our relationship with government. Imagine interacting with the local DMV and actually feeling good about it. Or visiting a single URL or calling one toll-free number to check on the status of an income tax refund, a permit request for a home renovation and a child’s entire K–12 record in public school. The idea seems almost laughable.

It’s not. John Hickenlooper, the Democrat governor of Colorado, understands the power of technology to connect governments and their citizens in unprecedented ways and to create a relationship that is, at its core, about service. A one-time entrepreneur who built a chain of thriving brewpub restaurants in the 1990s, Hickenlooper recently sat for a one-on-one interview and described his vision for a 21st century, technology-driven government in which Big Data informs and empowers citizens, legislation gets crowd-sourced and people receive the same personal, instantaneous service they’ve come to expect from their favorite brands.

Smart companies are all about Customer Relationship Management in the digital age. Why does this sound so far-fetched when applied to government?

You need customer service if you want people to believe in government again — and you need technology to have good customer service.

In government, however, there are inherent challenges to adopting technology. Officials at the very top of government too often have never managed a big business, so they don’t get any benefit from becoming more efficient. Maybe they get a pat on the back, but that’s it. When I was in the restaurant business, we always put a large emphasis on making sure the person receiving the meal was happy and the person serving the meal felt good about the transaction. Historically there has been a culture in government wherein government workers have sat in little cubicles and punched buttons. They had pride, but no responsibility and no sense of accountability. The public was just out there.

So that’s one big challenge. Another is the economy: Every six or seven years there’s an economic downturn, so governments delay purchasing technology and end up patching up the old systems. Until recently, the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles was using 30-year-old software.

States should be able to use technology to work together much more effectively.

Whatever the state of their technology, governments are by nature too insular. They never reach out to their citizens. They don’t take information that’s already available to make the lives of citizens easier or provide services more successfully. Too frequently, they don’t even let citizens know what’s going on.

The good news is that this culture of poor customer service in government is solvable.

This sounds easier said than done.

You have to appreciate how deep in the backwoods governments are. When I got elected governor in 2010, we had 15 different email systems throughout the executive offices.

I created the joint position of “Secretary of Technology” and “State Information Officer” — I think we are the only state to have done that — and, in the beginning, the job involved a lot of basic blocking and tackling. We transitioned all 15 departments to a single, cloud-based collaborative information system. Now we all use the same email and can work on each other’s projects. That’s old news in business, right? Well, there are not too many states where even this is happening.

My overall goal in creating the position was also to help us create a vision for how we can use technology to bring citizens closer to government and allow them to be a part of government. At the same time, I wanted us to understand better who our public is.

That’s when we started talking about “lifecycle management” and developed this idea of a “Citizen Engagement Platform.” Companies use CRM tools to collect and analyze customer information in ways that help them to provide better services and to save money. They do this because they understand that finding new customers and nurturing existing ones is their lifeblood. There’s no reason why governments shouldn’t think and do the same.

For example, a citizen receiving unemployment benefits should be tracked and contacted in the same way companies engage with new customers through the sales cycle. Citizens should have, for example, one place to go online for updating their information and should be able to choose whether they’re contacted by phone, email or text. State workers should have a complete view of the situation for every recipient of unemployment benefits and direct them to services that will help them financially and to find a job.

People should be able to reach out to customer support and get answers to multiple questions at once instead of having to contact government agencies separately.


Where is Colorado now in this process?

We’re still in the early stages of this. Within the year, the average wait time at the Colorado DMV will go from 60 minutes down to 15 minutes because of a $100 million investment in new technology. Our Department of Field Services switched to cloud-based technology that allows us to track, in a very public way, all of our goals in terms of child abuse rates. Starting in six months, every school in the state will be listed on a single website where parents can see how much money goes to teachers, how much goes to building upkeep, how much goes to food or faculty benefits.

Three years from now, Colorado citizens are going to be able to do all kinds of things on their smartphones, including registering their cars or registering to serve on local boards or commissions.

The point is to bring people closer to state government and to create connections that make their transactions with government more transparent. As we’re more public about what we do, the public holds us accountable.

Is there a role here for governments and private businesses to work together?

Absolutely. In the fall of 2013, we had the worst flooding that the state has ever seen. We had several thousand people displaced and the only information they could get was through their smartphones. So we created something called “Colorado United” and we got a couple of private-sector web designers, software programmers and other developers from a local entrepreneurial incubator called Galvanize. In a matter of days and very inexpensively they set up a mobile-enabled website that served as a clearinghouse for all kinds of real-time information, including how to get someone in to assess damage to a home. It was a tremendous success and it was an example of a public-private partnership that galvanized quickly to solve a problem using technology. When you’re dealing with disasters like this, government has got to operate at the speed of life. Historically, it never has.

The point of government is to help people be happier — to create joy — and technology can help us do that much more effectively.

In the private sector, businesses and consumers regularly come together to find better, more innovative ways of doing things. Just look at Apple’s App Store or Google’s App Marketplace. Governments should build similar marketplaces where they can buy software that can be integrated easily into their overall platform.


This sounds like something that could extend beyond Colorado. You don’t suppose the day will come when states — maybe even the federal government, too — might all use the same technology?

People say it’s crazy that governments would ever use the same technology to do their business. There are laws against businesses working too closely together. There’s no law against state governments working together too closely.

We’re doing it today. We’re working with Wyoming, North Dakota and New Mexico to set up a multistate cloud-based system to track unemployment. Why don’t western states have a drought plan? There are wonderful mapping techniques that can take information that’s already there, reprocess it and make it available on a multistate basis. Ultimately states should be able to use technology to work together much more effectively.

You talk about using technology to restore people’s faith in government. Is there more to it than that?

Yes. In the long-term, the point of government isn’t just to mitigate the risks that bad things can happen or help people to earn more money or lower unemployment. The point of government is to help people be happier — to create joy — and technology can help us do that much more effectively.


I have a hard time envisioning a day when I interact with my government and feel elated about it.

By integrating different technologies, we not only save money and create joy, but we’re also building momentum for progress. And the very fact that people begin to trust government and believe in it means they’ll invest in themselves. So, yes, it’s hard to imagine interacting with their Department of Motor Vehicles and actually feeling joy. But that’s our goal.

John Hickenlooper, a self-described “recovering geologist now on loan to public service,” was elected Colorado's governor in 2010. Since being sworn in, Hickenlooper has focused on initiatives such as making Colorado a place for entrepreneurs to grow jobs, making Colorado the healthiest state and promoting a balanced energy policy. He holds leadership roles in the National Governors Association, the Western Governors’ Association and the Democratic Governors Association.

Interview with Krysten Crawford, a contributing editor at Original9 Media in San Francisco.