In 1980, if a citizen wanted to ask a question, report a problem, or request work from their local government, they picked up the phone or stopped into the local office.
In 1997, that same citizen could send an email, place a phone call, or stop into the office.
In 2004, the citizen could send a request via a web form, send an email, place a phone call, or stop into the office.
In 2010, the citizen could message their local government on Facebook or Twitter, send a request via a web form, send an email, place a phone call, or stop into the office.
In 2021, that same citizen could text their local government, send a message on Facebook, Twitter, ask a question through a chatbot, send a request via a web form, send an email, place a phone call, or stop into the office.
It’s officially time to reign in the multi-channel madness.
Why? Because since 1980, technology channels and tools may have proliferated, but local governments’ budgets, staffing, and internal resources have tightened, resulting in an expectation for public sector communicators to do more with less, year-over-year, as citizens’ expectations for personal, timely communication responses have escalated.
With So Many Communication Channels, the Struggle is Real
Local government communicators spend hours each week reviewing general inquiry inboxes, social media accounts, voicemail systems, and even paper memos to provide citizens with the thoughtful and personal responses they deserve. Complicating the matter further, often, the answer to a citizens’ question or request can not come in the form of a simple, direct response. Sometimes, the request requires intervention from other departments or a reference to past requests or inquiries by the same citizen (“….I’m pretty sure there’s a post-it-note somewhere with my notes from last time…”). In these moments, the possibility for a citizen’s outreach to get lost in an administrative black hole is high—at no fault of the well-intentioned administrative staff member. With thousands or millions of citizens, departments that operate independently, and no tools or workflows established to make inter-departmental collaboration easy, the likelihood of a communication misstep is nearly unavoidable.
The Risk of Stifling Citizen Engagement by Restricting Communication Channels
Certainly, the advent of so many communication channels enables greater civic engagement, as it allows citizens to interact with their local government leaders using the tools and technology that are most accessible and preferable to them. For every citizen who enjoys learning about activities and classes from their parks and recreation department on Facebook, there is a citizen who, when a streetlight goes out in their neighborhood, prefers to call the public works department and speak to the same administrative staff member they’ve known for years.
What is the solution to the beneficial yet fragmented communication channels available to citizens that place an even greater time-management burden on local government communicators?
Not surprisingly, the answer is more technology.
The Simplicity and Brilliance of a Single Communication Aggregator
J.R.R. Tolkien introduced us to a fantastical universe and the indelible concept of “one ring to rule them all.” It is simplistic in its brilliance and defines the modern landscape of twenty-first-century technological innovation. At a time when there are dozens of apps for every task and the average citizen maintains eight social media accounts, consolidation is survival.
Today, there are tools that help you singularly store and manage your digital passwords, financial lines of credit, subscription services, and even your health records across all doctors, offices, and hospitals. Even in the workplace, many companies in the private sector use platforms that consolidate and enable the streamlined management of multiple social media platforms, team projects, and employee benefit plans.
With such capacity for digital singularity, what we’ve learned at CivicPlus® is that public communicators and citizen relationship managers need access to the same benefits of consolidation to manage their multi-communication tools. The ability to harness citizen outreach and respond from a single platform means that local governments can embrace the wide variety of tools and technologies available for citizen engagement. They can give up the struggle that is trying to encourage citizens to use individual forms and messages programmed to route to different stakeholders. It further means that they can put hours back in their week, all while inviting citizens to use their favorite communication channel—text, social, phone, form, or even chatbot—to let their local leaders know what is needed to make their shared community better.
It’s beautiful in its simplicity.
Wherever citizens are when they realize they have a question or concern, whether in a local park with their smartphone or in their car a block away from City Hall, all inquiries and requests can be welcomed and addressed when staff members can rely on the power and simplicity of a single tool to consolidate and streamline multi-channel communications.
Looking to the Future
In working with over 4,000 local governments, we regularly hear from them, especially in our post-COVID-19 reality, that technology has never been as vital as it is now in fostering positive civic experiences. The key, of course, is not to continue layering onto the software stack but to leverage smart tools that enable digital singularity for administrators while fostering multi-channel communication convenience for citizens. Thus, over the next five to ten years, we expect to see a boom in tools and workflow techniques that are future-proofed to help local governments take an additive approach to citizen communications and service, no matter what technologists innovate next.
About the Author Cari Tate
Cari Tate is the Solutions Director for CivicService and CivicReady at CivicPlus. In this role, Cari manages product development and strategy. In over seven years, she has also held roles as director of customer success, support, and implementation, which provides her unique insight into client experience and the needs of local governments. Before CivicPlus, Cari held various positions in sectors such as architecture/engineering, non-profit, and the federal government. Cari holds an MBA from Southern Connecticut State University.