Modern citizen engagement involves many moving parts. Thanks to channel shift, residents can connect with local government in far deeper ways than a phone message left with a call taker. Your community can access your agency via app, website, social media, chatbot, text message, and more. This means cities have tons of opportunities for improving citizen engagement, but it can be hard to keep up!
What’s really helping this shift, though, is the fact that technology allows for genuine connections. Local governments and their residents are engaging in two-way dialogue. Citizens expect responses to their inquiries, and agencies can collect feedback from constituents. And cities like Lewisville, Texas are benefiting from deepened connections by taking a holistic approach to resident engagement.
Recently, I was fortunate to moderate the panel How Lewisville, TX Transformed Citizen Engagement from the Inside Out as part of CSWeek’s 2020 Engage 311 Digital Conference. Kent Boring, Community Outreach Specialist with the City of Lewisville, and Stefani Phelps, Administrative Assistant in Lewisville’s Public Works department, shared their experiences and wisdom of engagement transformation through the implementation of Rock Solid’s civic engagement platform.
Here are the lessons I took away from our panel that you should use in your city to improve citizen engagement:
Lesson 1: Understand The Importance of Citizen Engagement for Your City
What aspects of citizen engagement are important to you? Why is citizen engagement important overall?
This may seem obvious, but the answers can be nuanced. Identifying the what and the why within your community establishes a guiding light for all future steps towards improving citizen engagement.
In Lewisville, equity and transparency form the base of citizen engagement. According to Boring, “Providing opportunities to be transparent and communicate are really important. The old way of doing things, 50-60 years ago, you had a small group of people--a planner, an engineer, the mayor--who got together at city hall and made decisions for the city. And that might have worked sixty years ago because citizens didn’t know what they didn’t know. They weren’t engaged.”
“But you can’t do that now. We have so many connection points to our city via social media and communication feedback. Citizens are so much more involved, and hearing about things the city is doing. If the city isn’t thinking about that, they’re going to get crucified in the court of public opinion. You can’t be reactive. It’s much better for a city to be proactive. That’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to focus on community engagement.”
Understanding the reason for focusing on citizen engagement will help prioritize, organize, and set expectations for future projects.
Lesson 2: Know What Your Community Members Really Want
“We wanted to rethink the way we were engaging with our residents. The old way needed a facelift. We wanted to focus on local solutions. Everything needs to be about how do we better interact with residents.”
– Kent Boring, Community Outreach Specialist, City of Lewisville
You can’t have citizen engagement without the citizen! One of Boring’s anecdotes from the webinar that stuck out in my mind was his experience at a town hall meeting. He asked people about their preferred way to communicate with government and heard an array of answers.
Some people would like to use mobile apps to connect with government, while others would prefer to call. Others would never answer their phone for a local government representative, but would be comfortable with physical mail. Others still would prefer an in-person visit to their home, but a knock on the door of someone who didn’t want a home visit might lead to danger in a place like Texas, according to Boring!
So what did Lewisville do? They took advantage of all the places residents already are for their engagement strategy. “Technology has given us so many options. We can capitalize on the ecosystems where people are already operating–social media, smartphones, voice to text, gamifying interactions… That’s the only way we’re going to innovate, and it’s good business as well. If we group-think [internally], we miss out on the collective intelligence of our community. The more we can invite in that collective intelligence and crowd-source ideas is smart.”
For Lewisville and other local governments, there is no one-size-fits-all engagement solution. As for where to start, consider the channels your residents already use. Are there channels with greater reach or accessibility in your city? Don’t be afraid to ask your residents, and do research to back it up. For Lewisville’s Community Outreach Specialist, mobile was a big piece of the puzzle because, “At the end of the day, 96% of citizens in the US have a cell phone… Mobile, for me, was the big selling point. I wanted residents to be comfortable, when out and about, to take a picture and send something in.”
Lesson 3: The Right Solution Will Bring Departments Together Without Adding Work
Cities rely on dozens of specialized tools to function. But improving citizen engagement means creating a seamless experience on the front end. Residents should have one hub of communication with local government, regardless of which department will complete the work. To strike the right balance between citizen engagement and internal function, look to software with integrations.
When Boring first came to the city of Lewisville, his goal was to bring every department that handled service requests onto the same back-end platform. With 85-90 different software solutions at the city, that seems like a logical decision! But he quickly learned that specialized tools help different teams, from Animal Services to Public Works, do their jobs well.
Boring’s mission, though, was to improve engagement and customer service. “We didn’t want to have five different front-ends that citizens interact with, and different processes for how we interact with residents. So I changed my strategy. I need to find a system that would integrate.”
Your city need not restructure its entire back-end to improve citizen engagement. A highly integrated solution can take the tools, policies, and processes already in place and create a unified front end for citizens to connect. Add convenience for your community without disrupting internal teams with specialized systems. That’s the way to go!
“When we were looking at solutions, we ultimately wanted to bring something on board that makes our lives easier. We don’t want to have technology for the sake of having it.”
- Kent Boring, Community Outreach Specialist, City of Lewisville
Lesson 4: Collaborative Onboarding Processes Make New Tools Work
Stefani Phelps was on the ground in Lewisville for implementation of the city’s new citizen engagement software. Want to make new software work for your city’s staff? Phelps says you need to make the entire process collaborative.
“Like most organizations, we do have many different personalities in our department. Some are eager to learn, and some are more resistant… Valuing user input about what’s working and what isn’t, and convincing people that new technology won’t interfere with or add to their workload is key to getting them on board,” explained Phelps.
Here are tips for successful onboarding of teams that will be using a new citizen engagement system:
- Get buy-in at every level. Decisions made at the top without input from everyday users may not land. New software should make everyone’s lives easier.
- People are more receptive to change when they’re involved.
- Have a clear-cut action plan that includes hands-on training and the solicitation of feedback. This plan should be visible to the entire team.
- Create how-to guides and document customer service expectations like the documents pictured here.
- User buy-in is extremely valuable for feedback to leadership. This will help secure buy-in at the top for any ongoing needs.
- Focus on how the new software will make life easier.
- Designate a team member as a software champion. They should be knowledgeable about the new tool and processes and be able to provide backup for any integration and operations questions.
Lesson 5: Set Standards for Accountability, Transparency, and Customer Service
Remember back to the very first lesson from Lewisville? Here’s where understanding the importance of improving citizen engagement comes into play. Based on your objectives, establish clear-cut standards within your city for community engagement execution for your staff.
“If you provide the options, but there’s no accountability for the city, it fails. You can’t just have technology. You have to have standards for accountability, transparency, and a high level of customer service. If you don’t do that, your citizens will let you know.”
- Kent Boring, Community Outreach Specialist, City of Lewisville
Look at how different teams use their existing tools. How are work orders processed? When do you close out work orders? From there, create explicit policies around communication. “Cities can’t say ‘thanks, got it, we’ll take care of it when we can.’ You’ll get crucified for that. We had to push towards a high level of accountability, transparency, and customer service,” claims Boring.
If you don’t build communication correctly, citizens may not be notified for weeks or months. That’s when your customer service slips away. In Boring’s experience, citizens today are used to immediate responses and expect the same treatment from local government.
To increase transparency, build a step into your work order process that sends the citizen an email when a work order is created from their request. These can happen automatically via workflows in the software. For example, Lewisville’s routine requests, like potholes, can trigger an automated message to the requester with an expected resolution timeline upon creation of the work order in Cityworks, the city’s Asset Management system.
The Benefits of Improving Citizen Engagement in Lewisville
Lewisville’s journey of improving citizen engagement with Rock Solid has already generated positive results. “Specifically, the Rock Solid platform ideally cuts down phone calls, automates processes, increases our customer service level… It provides another good option for engaging with our residents,” claims Boring.
He continues, “One of the biggest things for me that the platform helps us manage the expectations of our residents. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about when these requests are coming in… The old way, it was much more passive. We’d take the call, thank the citizen, and that was it. I don’t think we can do that anymore. A platform like this that has those prepared responses, escalations, APIs, and push and pull of data [between systems] built in really helps us manage resident expectations.”
Cities are complex, and while some requests are easy to resolve, others can take a long time. Being transparent with their community has allowed Lewisville to fulfill its commitments to residents and improve perceptions while resolving real issues in the city.
And this all happen without burdening staff. The previous service request process did not support ongoing communication and updates. For one, the transfer of information from citizens to staff is better with Rock Solid, as pictures and GPS coordinates automatically go into the Public Works team’s system of record. But now, as staff update their own systems of record, Rock Solid automates communication to residents so they receive regular updates as their request is completed. And that happens without putting extra work on maintenance staff’s plates.
Through it all, it’s important to remember who local government’s real customers are citizens. Boring states, “At the end of the day we’re dealing with people, not potholes. We’re not actually meeting expectations by filling the pothole, we’re meeting expectations of transparency and communication. You still have to fill the pothole, but you can do that anytime. It’s how you fill that pothole and how you communicate with residents that makes a difference.”
To learn more about how Lewisville transformed citizen engagement from the inside out, I highly recommend catching the full webinar on-demand. All the panelists had a ton of valuable information to share for any local government staff concerned with improving resident relationships.