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Treating Citizens as Customers

The original of this post was featured on GCN.com

Can the government truly have “customers”? Someone who orders a fishing license or buys a license plate fits the literal definition of a customer – a person purchasing goods or services from an organization. But let’s say someone just needs a flu shot, or is signing up for the neighborhood watch or is attempting to get a passport updated? Do those actions make the person the government’s customer?

The answer should be an emphatic, “Who cares!” All citizens should be treated as customers.

Unfortunately, the public sector is not renowned for its service, especially in a world where citizens have come to expect lightning-fast responses, user-friendly mobile interfaces and slick, personalized experiences from  companies like Amazon or Uber. With budgets tightening, workforces retiring and legacy IT maintenance absorbing budgets, the public sector is struggling to meet rising citizen expectations.

The good news is that there is a path forward and things are starting to change. Innovative governments are starting to think of citizens as customers in small ways that have the potential to grow. These governments are seeking to provide services and information people need and want in compelling and timely ways. They’re helping improve quality of life and making government better by giving people what they want, when they want it, as fast and as accurately as possible. These governments are successfully improving outcomes for their citizens.

Leveraging technology to reach citizens

The types of communications these governments are employing couple storytelling with a drumbeat of relevant and accountable information. Old school government press releases don’t accomplish much, but targeted promotions, reminders and training videos that promote behavior change can be the difference between effective services and information that change decisions, outcomes and lives – and services that go unused.

As government agencies improve communication, they are battling private marketers for citizen attention, which is markedly waning. As an example, mobile device usage is on the rise, but the average time spent on messages is only 8 seconds.

Government communicators succeed when they turn to data-driven tactics and tap into the power of influencers. These effective strategies can help improve public perception and customer service and compel actions that fast-track the achievement of strategic goals.

Let’s take a look at how each of these approaches can help improve citizen engagement.

Get more from data

Agencies are already using impactful tools like email and mobile messaging, but they must also segment and target each audience with specific information while respecting users’ privacy. Doing so is a valuable step in attaining private-sector standards of engagement and conversion.

Communications specifically tailored to audience interests are inherently relevant, which makes those communications more likely to capture attention and engage citizens in programs and initiatives of value. Additionally, segmentation tools allow organizations to target audiences based on prior engagement activity, which re-engages and awakens “sleepy subscribers.”

Two great examples come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The VA has had success in segmenting and targeting audiences that didn’t engage with initial messages about its new filing process. It used newer types of communications to drive additional message engagement, which ultimately resulted in citizens using the new process. Meanwhile, the FFWCC sends a quarterly re-engagement campaign to promote new programs, services or topics of interest to existing subscribers.

Uncovering and tapping into influencers

Getting the right message into the hands of the right people creates a viral effect, and government agencies can and should tap into this phenomenon. The success of the ALS ice bucket challenge is a great example of advocacy gone viral.

Advocacy plays a critical role in the success of government programs and services, and uncovering advocates can be difficult. It is a challenge worth undertaking. Advocates, or influencers, are highly engaged and more likely to share content with friends and family. Organizations that develop successful communication and relationships with influencers reach a wider audience.

King County, Wash., for example, gains insights from data gathered about the top sharers of its digital content. It then targets these users with advocacy messaging and loyalty content.

It’s time for government agencies to stop treating their citizens as just citizens. Citizens are also customers whose digital lifestyles have accustomed them to a certain level of service and engagement. This is a golden opportunity for government agencies to engage with these customers on their terms, through their devices — and make truly meaningful connections.