Is Apple About to Accidentally Kill Government as Platform?

An effort by Apple to prevent spam may unintentionally undo years of digital government app development.

At Code for America, we believe that government services can be as good as the best services you use on your phone every day. Today, most of the technology that makes those services available on your phone is built by third parties (non-profits, vendors, SaaS product providers) but the underlying services themselves (food assistance, pothole repair, garbage pickup, emergency response) are run and operated by government. The public not only deserves those services we have paid for with our tax dollars, and deserves them to be accessible in a digital era, but demands a clear relationship with their government regardless of who builds the apps. But earlier this year, Apple made an announcement that threatens to damage cities’ ability to serve and engage their citizens via smartphone apps.

In an effort to reduce the proliferation of spam apps, Apple changed its App Store review guidelines to ban “apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service.” In what appears to be a misguided interpretation of an otherwise reasonable rule, Apple has decided to include white-labeled government apps in this category.

In effect, if a company provides a unique 311 app for cities like Boston and San Francisco, Apple is now banning these apps and demanding that each company create a single app that serves all its clients.

In other words, cities will no longer be allowed to have branded apps of their own, unless they create them entirely from scratch AND promise that these apps do not share any code. Governments are unlikely to create their own apps with in-house teams, and even less likely to do so if they can’t share code. This is counter to much of the progress government has made over the last several years towards better apps, better service, and greater digital competence.

These changes will thus have several major impacts on cities, and few of them will be good for the public or government. I have two key concerns with Apple’s new policy:

First, cities will no longer own the relationship with their citizens. Instead, city services offered in an app will be intermediated through private companies’ brands. For example, the City of San Francisco will no longer be able to advertise an “SF311” app but will instead have to push its citizens to a private vendor’s app, because the company behind that app (in this case, Connected Bits) white-labels its app to dozens of cities, and appears to Apple today as a “spam app.

If these share code with apps built for other cities, they won’t be listed as Calgary, but as a generic transit or garbage app that works for all cities, regardless of where you live.

It is critical that citizens trust online government services. If cities cannot brand these services, how are citizens to know they are using an official, sanctioned service or not? Take the City of Calgary: it offers a constellation of specialized apps from various vendors that have consistent branding, making it clear to citizens that these apps can be trusted. In Apple’s new world, this will all be lost as Calgary will have to point to a mishmash of city and corporate brands.

The problem of low trust in online government services is already significant. At Code for America, one of the ways we’re proving government can work better for people is trying to close the participation gap in food assistance in California by making an easier way for people to apply online and an easier way for county staff to find and remove barriers where users get stuck in the process. This is not helped when scammers place ads on searches for “food stamps” or “food assistance” and trick people in need of help into giving them their personal information. The same goes for other services Code for America runs, like one that helps people clear their criminal records. Fortunately, Google and other search engines have robust, ever-evolving algorithms that push legitimate links to the top of the search results and suppress the scammers. Ironically, suppressing scammers and low-quality apps is what Apple is trying to do here, but by forcing cities to direct their citizens to a confusing array of app makers instead of to legitimate, city-branded front ends to their critical services, they will have the opposite effect from what they intend.

Second, this change will reduce choice and competition. The emerging ecosystem of new civic tech vendors is critical to Code for America’s vision. These vendors have created new services and put pressure on established players to up their game, and the competition has been good for everyone. But changes Apple is proposing will make it far more costly and complicated for a city to switch to a different app vendor, since Apple’s new rules force the app developer, not the city, to own the user. Today, if the City of San Francisco decides to switch its SF311 app from one vendor to another, it can keep the same name and brand for its apps, terminate its contract, and migrate users from the old vendor to the new vendor. However, under the new guidelines, the City of San Francisco will make a huge investment of taxpayer dollars in promoting a private vendor’s brand. Worse, if they decide to then change vendors, they will have to create new messaging that runs counter to their previous messaging and try to divert users to a new private company’s brand.

Indeed, the City of Jackson, MI recently cancelled the launch of the app in the Apple Store because they were not allowed to use their branding, but would instead have to point their citizens to the company behind their app — in this case CivicPlus.

Worse, some vendors, not wanting to lose users, may simply continue to pretend that they serve the city. The “fired” vendor could continue to let users use its app and simply email or send requests to the city, burdening the city with inefficient systems, or forcing them to pay the vendor to access the users that are still on its platform.

I sympathize with Apple’s conundrum. Solving the problem of spam apps is a laudable goal. But if we have learned anything dealing with complex policy issues in government, it is that the one law always in effect is the law of unintended consequences. I don’t think Apple set out to disintermediate cities with private vendors, but that is the path we’re going down. In an era where trust in government is already low, I can’t see how that benefits anyone. And there is certainly a workaround for this, if Apple will engage in this conversation.

Mayors, city managers, people of the civic tech world, everyone: I encourage you to write Apple and ask for a chance to engage in a dialogue about the consequences of this move.

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