*THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY ON June 24, 2021.*
Resident engagement looks a lot different from 30 years ago. The tools we use at work, home, and everywhere in between shape our everyday lives.
The pandemic revealed gaps in how local government functions in today’s landscape. When city hall closes down, how do residents access the services they need? From internal processes to resident service delivery, local government had to catch up and provide services in more flexible ways. Progress has been made already, but how do leaders continue the trend of improvement to deliver exceptional resident engagement in the future?
In the recent GovTech/Governing webinar, Connecting With Constituents: How Omnichannel Communications Improve Civic Engagement, Craig Hopkins, Chief Innovation Officer of the City of San Antonio, Texas, Paul Clanton, Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Government, and Tom Spengler, Chief Executive Officer at Rock Solid Technology, came together to discuss the new landscape of resident engagement and the strategies local government leaders are using to serve their communities better than before.
Though the webinar was jam-packed with insight on resident engagement, three areas of focus stood out. If you want to create a truly resident-centric experience, here’s what you need to do:
1. Transform “Inside-Out” to “Outside-In” Thinking
“[One of the things] that I saw right away was this inside out thinking: ‘I'm the department head, I know what's best.’ What we wanted to culturally change was [a move to] outside-in thinking. ‘Your residents think this, how are you responding?’ That's a cultural transformation you have to go through first.”
Are you doing what is right for your residents? Are you empathetic to their experiences? This is a critical piece for connecting with your community, and providing service on a deeper level.
Departmental leaders typically create and own the processes by which their organization engages with the community. Decisions are made from inside the organization and implemented outward. But this, according to Craig, can lead to inside-out thinking.
(This also leads to as many processes as there are departments—a poor experience for residents, to say the least! Keep this in mind, we’ll dive in later in this article.)
Of course, these leaders’ experiences are important. But there’s another expert on identifying the needs of your community--the residents themselves. In order to serve, you need to shape the experience from their perspective. Moving from inside-out to outside-in thinking requires active cultural change.
In San Antonio, the shift towards resident-focused culture was endorsed by city leadership from the time they hired Craig. “They had a leadership culture said we're not going to stay status quo. We're going to do what we think is right for the resident,” said the CIO.
Then, the pandemic happened, upending plans around the world. But to Craig, this presented an opportunity. "Never let a good event go to waste. Not to minimize the event we've gone through, but as change agents, how do we leverage these events for the betterment of our organization? We can’t miss this opportunity.”
“We're going to rethink our service delivery, and not only for the residents, but for our employees… So we came up with this strategic triangle. We have to do all three of these things really well, which is driven by rethinking our service delivery.”
What contributes to the construction of an “outside-in” culture? Two-way communication is part of it, where residents contribute to meetings, serve on boards, and provide feedback. A healthy dose of empathy also matters. “As leaders, we need to not just be sympathetic, we need to be empathetic of our residents… You're not speaking on your personal behalf. You are empathizing for the people you're supposed to be serving.”
If you have a culture that supports an outside-in vision, constraints and resource limitations become operational questions that can be solved. A piece of advice from Craig: “Don’t give up! Advocate for your residents.”
2. Focus on OmniChannel with Channels of Choice
“Omnichannel means multiple ways to solve your problem, in the channel that you, the resident, choose.”
To enable two-way communication, your residents must be able to connect how they want. But do cities provide the options their communities crave?
Based on a poll during the webinar, local government has room for improvement. When asked if their constituents could access services across any channel, only 11% of respondents agreed. As a whole, that means nearly 9 in 10 respondents had room for improvement in omnichannel access to services.
This was true in San Antonio, too. To report an issue to 311, you could call, visit the office, or access the website. If digital methods were your preference, your channel of choice was limited to the website. But for a truly omnichannel approach, you need to ask which channels your residents want to interact with. Mobile, social media, texting, and others may be untapped channels.
According to Craig, “you can’t force people into one channel.” Clearly, it would be a bad idea to shutter your phone lines and force everyone online. But isn’t only offering call-in or in-person services the same thing in reverse? That’s why omnichannel is critical for channel of choice.
No matter what channel a resident wants to use (in-person, phone call, web, mobile, etc.), local government should be ready to serve. The “correct” channel varies from person to person or even situation to situation, too. “That's not a business decision, it's a resident decision,” said Craig. “It’s not the physical channels of interactions themselves, but it's also the quality of what happens in those channels.”
Accessibility for people of all kinds is a reason for omnichannel too. Craig mentioned three factors that apply to San Antonio:
- Digital divide: In San Antonio, 1 in 4 people don't have access to high-speed broadband. But they may still have data on their phone. “We're not going to leave 25% of our population behind. So that means we have to provide that different, lighter presentation as we go forward.”
- Accessibility: “In our channels, how are we building for all, regardless of ability? That's expensive to do, we're going to have to make some tradeoffs, but it's about quality of that interaction.”
- Multi-language translation: Service accessibility in multiple languages, especially Spanish, is a big conversation in San Antonio. Google translate, as Craig has learned, often isn’t enough to cover cultural and dialectical variance in the city.
Ultimately, providing omnichannel options for residents is the future of service. “My thought of omnichannel, which used to be ‘which channel do you want to work in,’ has really elevated to ‘what is the level of quality expected by the resident in the channel that they choose.’”
3. Break Down Silos to Treat Every Resident as Unique
“A resident doesn’t think of department A, B, and C. The resident thinks, 'well that's my city government. There's 10 people down there that talk to each other. I just have to talk to one of them and they'll figure it out.' They don't realize that in San Antonio we have 11,500 employees.”
To create a vehicle for effective resident engagement, you must meet residents’ expectations of customer service. A unified experience that works throughout the city—for end users and staff alike—makes this come to life.
San Antonio is a city of over 1.5 million people, with 11,500 staff members, 42 departments, and 10 city council districts to match. In the past, each department treated residents and engagement processes as their own. But to create a resident-centric experience, the thinking had to change. Craig moved towards “one team, one mission, one customer” as the point of focus. The walls between departments needed to come down.
Why? Community expectations have changed. “What typically happens is people interact with the city [in three different places] and they assume you know about those three interactions. As we all know, three different departments don't know what's going on in the other departments,” said Craig.
San Antonio placed residents at the center of their strategy, with a unique identifier that works across departments. That way, residents navigate through government using a single system of record. On the backend, any department can see historical engagement to better support the resident. As CIO, Craig has stepped up to own that process.
Breaking down silos meant introducing the concept of a single customer across the city. Craig’s advice for making this happen? “I'm going to say something really simple and it's incredibly hard: somebody has to own the customer, and every customer has to have a unique identifier. Period.” Enterprise leadership, strategy, and the right tools are all required for a more citizen-centric government.
Creating a Resident-Centric Public Portal in San Antonio
“What I really wanted to push hard as a vision was it's got to be an integrated platform. It's got to look like ‘one view’ to the resident and it's also got to look like ‘one view’ to the city employees.”
“Clearly understanding resident needs,” claims Craig, is one of the highest resident engagement priorities in San Antonio. To better serve its community in the way they want, the Texas city is creating a Resident Connection Portal. Designed with “outside-in” thinking to let residents decide how and where they want to interact, the city’s cohesive platform will manage the resident experience across systems.
San Antonio’s Resident connection portal will provide one place for residents to engage with government. For the city, data on interactions, public meeting agendas, and resident feedback lives in one platform as well. Craig shared this example: “[Joe] is a very active resident in reporting potholes. He's out there advocating for streets in his neighborhood. Wouldn't we really like to know that about [Joe] so the next time there's a spot on a board or commission about city streets, we might want to reach out to [Joe] and say, ‘would you like to be more active in what we do here today?’”
The Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) platform forms the base for these interactions, enabling visibility across all engagements. Managing public meetings, calendars, boards and commissions, and work orders become effective vehicles for collecting public input. With this holistic solution, Craig says, “people don't feel like they have to come down to city hall in order to do that. That part of this vision is really a front end to the resident, a back end to the departments, which is one common platform, and the integration of those activities across the center.”
The Future of Resident Engagement
San Antonio is taking a forward-leaning approach to engaging its community by putting people at the center of its processes. Craig Hopkins and his city have committed to building better bridges with their community and are putting in work to make their vision a reality.
If you want more information on how Craig and his team are putting their resident engagement plans into action, hear it straight from him on the Connecting With Constituents: How Omnichannel Communications Improve Civic Engagement webinar on-demand.