When I reflect on the last six months, so much has changed, not least the way we communicate with the organizations we interact with on a regular basis. The new contactless standard has seen organizations embrace the shift to digital communications to stay connected with their stakeholders from a safe distance. I recently explored how messaging can support the customer experience in retail and the patient experience in healthcare. But there’s one more important stakeholder experience that digital communications can support during COVID-19 and beyond: the citizen experience.
Cities were already on their way to using messaging in their communications with citizens pre-COVID across all the aspects of local government, including emergency response, public health and policing. For example, 311 is a non-emergency phone number that people can call or text in many cities to find out information about local services, file complaints, or report problems they see in their community like road damage or graffiti.
But just like for-profit sectors, COVID-19 quickly intensified the need for more digital communications initiatives in local government. In the U.S., thousands of local government entities are largely consumed with responding to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic right now. Residents look to their local governments for information and support in a crisis situation, so how they respond matters. As these entities are for the people, it’s important to reach the people where they are. That’s where digital communications comes in.
SMS location-based messaging can target people based on a specific location and communicate with them effectively and efficiently during COVID-19. For example, local governments can select a particular area and blast a message out to all active phone numbers that reside there, such as to share reminders of COVID-19 symptoms and safety rules, their nearest drive-by testing sites and details of the latest reopening phase.
Just as commercial businesses are recognizing the longer term benefits of an omnichannel communications strategy and the ubiquitous nature of messaging, local governments should also adopt messaging for the long term. Ongoing digital communications can support local governments achieve the following goals that all contribute to creating the optimum citizen experience:
Increase public awareness of important issues. Be they short term issues that require immediate attention such as temporary road closures, or longer term initiatives the city is working toward for public health, safety and wellbeing, messaging gets the information straight into the hands of local residents, and most importantly, gets the information seen — Gartner research shows SMS open rates are as high as 98%, compared to just 20% of all emails.
Increase public trust and city perception. Gallup’s annual Governance poll showed 72% of U.S. adults say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in their local government. That’s a strong number, but still over a quarter of Americans don’t share that same trust. When thinking about how to improve the numbers, I believe improved responsiveness and transparency is a critical consideration. Sharing opt-in SMS updates on planning and housing projects, emergency department data and goals, and more, are all ways that local government entities can be concise and clear about how they’re carrying out their responsibilities.
Increase community participation. So much of how we enjoy and get the most from where we live has to do with our local involvement. One of the services that local governments have responsibility for is community development. There are several ways that entities can support those initiatives through digital communications:
– One is by sending messages with details about local events and businesses when public spaces and buildings are safe to reopen.
– The second is to encourage local support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that’s sweeping the nation. In a recent Mitto survey 87% of Americans that participate in protests find it important to be directly alerted around protest locations or time changes. Sixty-four percent of Americans said they view it as important to receive communication around how to support the BLM movement in the following months.
– Third, use messaging to encourage participation in the upcoming election. Local governments can do their part by sharing information about how people can get registered and guide residents to their local voting station in November.
It’s become clear that digital readiness is just as important in local government as it is in commercial industries. These are uncertain times for millions across the U.S. and staying connected to people can make the world of difference during COVID-19. Beyond the pandemic, local governments shouldn’t revert back to old strategies though. Consumer habits have permanently changed and with them so should communications strategies to make the citizen experience effortless and engaging.