By Paul Bender, Global Public Sector Marketing
The United States’ Founding Fathers never would have fathomed the ways technology would impact government communication. Social media, mobile apps, email, blogging, and chat tools have offered invaluable opportunities for government agencies to share information with the nation, as well as receive civilian feedback.
But as invaluable as technology has become, there is still progress to be made in terms of achieving a truly connected state with citizens. We all remember the launch of HealthCare.gov, the Federal Government’s online healthcare exchange, just over three years ago. While the issues with the website have long been resolved, initially users experienced frustration with faulty data, inescapable loops and odd error messages. As The Verge reported in Oct. 2013, it was mainly an issue of interoperability and continuity. This spanned the dozen or so agencies and contractors responsible for developing the site, as well as how the access to information between the Federal and State Governments. This was a point where citizen engagement was of the utmost importance, but the experience was buggy and ineffective.
While there were many lessons learned during the HealthCare.gov experience, ensuring reliable and intuitive communication with the country was a key takeaway. To achieve a connected state with the nation’s citizens, the government is exploring new technologies and balancing those with meticulous standards to ensure smoother lines of communication ahead.
Multichannel Approach to Citizen Engagement
When it comes to technology adoption, the Federal Government tends to be on the trailing edge. That is, the government is actively evaluating new technological innovations, but these tools need to be carefully tried and tested before they can be deployed. This means that many government agencies are still catching up with some important channels for engaging people across the country.
As many private sector enterprises are doing, government agencies need to take a multichannel approach to citizen communications within the overarching unified communications (UC) strategy. This means individuals should have a consistent and effective experience across different platforms to access the information they need, when they need it. Likewise, government personnel need to be able to take instant action on the data produced by citizens as they submit online forms or leave comments. This means interoperability should be a priority from the start, rather than an afterthought.
For many government agencies, self-service portals are key. This approach allows individuals to navigate to important information on their own, which greatly reduces costs. That said, agencies must ensure their platforms and services are connected cohesively on the backend, providing people with a clear pathway to desired resources. In addition, many agencies are building on-demand support, like chat, into their self-service tools to address any questions or concerns citizens may have along the way. This means that no matter what channels of communication an agency uses, the architecture needs to interoperate and provide a seamless experience internally and externally.
The Growing Role of Mobile
Pew Research estimates that nearly seven out of ten adults in America own a smartphone, however, talking on the phone is starting to become passé. Deloitte predicted in early 2016 that over a quarter of smartphone users would not make any traditional phone calls in an average week. While voice calls are certainly still a key communication method for the government, alternative mobile experiences are growing ever more essential.
Fortunately, mobile phones offer much more than voice as a means for the populace to connect with the government. Mobile apps, email and mobile-friendly versions of websites are all potential channels for the government to improve engagement. Even texting has become a key tool, particularly for the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, which can swiftly warn citizens of an imminent threat within a given geographic location.
Today, mobile is an essential part of any agency’s UC strategy, however it is another channel that needs to interoperate well within the existing UC framework.
Diversification of Social Media
Government agencies have varying levels of social media use, which means some agencies are missing out on opportunities to break down even more communication barriers with citizens. Earlier this year, Bianca Spinosa wrote a story for FCW highlighting the growing popularity of Snapchat for government agencies, including “USA.gov, the White House, NASA, the Peace Corps, and two Smithsonian museums — the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian.” As Snapchat grew in popularity and expanded beyond a millennial fad, these government agencies recognized the value of the platform in terms of sharing interesting information with audiences.
Snapchat is by no means the final frontier. The key benefit of social media is that the conversation is a two-way street. Social media gives citizens the chance to respond immediately to posts or give valuable feedback that can help inform and improve social services. There are also ways to weave social media into intranets or backend infrastructure to ensure social media data is easily accessible for government personnel, too.
When it comes to reaching audiences, as citizens go, so goes the government. While careful planning and audience research is imperative before government agencies jump on any new technology, unified communications strategies should reflect the fact that the channels for communication with the populous will only increase and diversify in the coming years. The key for agencies is to ensure strong interoperability of these channels on the back