Best practises in digital citizen-engagement: A Local Government perspective.

What digital citizen engagement in Local Government should look like?

Using digital methods to improve citizen engagement in local governments was the theme of a round table discussion facilitated by Jos Creese, a digital consultant, thought leader and veteran local government CIO. The roundtable was hosted in Future Cities Catapult in London on June 1, 2017 and was sponsored by novoville.

The group had a broad experience, covering both public and private sectors, UK and Europe, technology and other professional disciplines. The discussion tackled a range of topics relating to how councils need to approach digital customer-service design.

There was strong consensus on the importance of designing for smart-phone access (mobile apps), for both public and staff – a “council in my pocket” as was strongly stated. This way not only can you access the services that you want in the way you want, but you could select the range of interests, transactions, and information relevant to your needs and preferences.

Transparency is seen as a key enabler. This includes using data to open up information about the inner workings of councils and their performance, as well as access to information and transactional services. The roundtable highlighted that councils need to move closer to their citizens – finding out what they really want, not what councils staff think that citizens want. This was seen to involve getting citizens engaged and responding to their needs and preferences through co-design and delivery of services.

Incentives to encourage citizens to change their habits and to use (and to trust) digital services from councils may also be required. Simply moving to “digital-by-default” to become more efficient, and so keeping down council tax, is not a strong enough argument in itself for citizens to interact that way. The question to answer is: “how will the citizen actually benefit”?

At the same time participants agreed that trying to transform the 600 to 700 services that a council operates all at once was risky at best, and not achievable. Yet, from the point of view of the citizen, there needs to be “whole system thinking” in the way services are designed for digital delivery in the future. Sometimes councils find it tempting to design a digital customer service experience based on the way services have operated in the past. This is partly because of legacy systems but also because of legacy thinking and practices. A more radical approach requires designing around the service-user (the “customer”), so that they feel understood, valued and involved.

At the same time, one of the weaknesses of digital transformation programmes, especially where it impacts on customer service, is poor marketing, selling new initiatives and communications. Simple and understandable language about what changes are happening, why and how they will impact on people, is compromised by jargon or an assumption that people will ‘just get it’.

There was an interesting presentation by novoville on their UK survey of citizen behavioural patterns. This contained new findings as well as confirmation and reinforcement of views previously identified. For example, people want to know in simple terms how their taxes are spent. They want to know about local issues in their area (more than national impacts). And they want to be able to access services designed around their needs and interests.

The survey also found that more than two thirds of citizens had interacted with the local council more than three times in the last 18 months. Some of this was around service failure (i.e. a need for a repeat visit), while 50% reported that they were happy with the service that they had received.

So public demand is clear, and in terms of data and digital services, over 85% were prepared to share their personal data if digital services are useful and if they understand why data is being collected and how they will benefit. Notably, 45% prefer social media as a channel to interact with their council, and over 80% will use their smartphone to do so.

The results showed an engaged group of citizens wanting digital services to ‘feel and look’ like Facebook or other popular services with a single account and simple, single login. The novoville approach of ‘progressive authentication’ which means that citizens are not asked for more data than they need at a point in time, was used as an example – citizens are only asked to add more personal data when required for more complex or sensitive transactions with the novoville citizen smartphone app.

The roundtable group also considered the challenge around supplier rationalisation in delivering more integrated customer services. Whilst a patchwork of systems carries risks and challenges, so does a dependence on a few big suppliers. Currently many councils have duplicate systems for similar functions. New approaches to procurement, especially around joining up services and introducing greater invention, require a true partnership with suppliers, large and small. Councils increasingly need to buy services, not products, but some suppliers simply want to sell and move on. To this end participants agreed that councils need to work more with start-ups that introduce more flexible and innovative services.

Click here to download the discussion notes.

Time to Innovate & Engage: revision of existing interaction mediums

Time to Innovate & Engage: revision of existing interaction means

Technology development puts pressure on all forms of government to modernise services, to become more responsive to public needs, to provide efficient problem-solving and to be more open and transparent. This in turn leads to more effective and meaningful democratic participation.

Local government is at the centre of this transformation, in their relationship with businesses, other public service organisations and directly with citizens. But they inevitably struggle to keep pace with technological development, the expectations of digital citizens and the risks and challenges associated with these changes.

The starting point on this journey is to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the citizens and communities with local public service providers. Technology based digital tools, if well-designed, can enable this, offering ways to construct fast, open, responsive and participatory public services fit for the 21st century. Digital methods also offer the potential for efficient yet customised services based on common digital components which reflect the needs of the individual and the diversity of our communities.

Our survey was designed to record the frequency, the type and the quality of current and preferred interactions between citizens and local councils.

Our key findings demonstrate significant willingness and demand from citizens in general to embrace digital services from local government in the UK. But it depends on councils being willing and able to implement citizen-facing, modern, digital solutions placed at the heart of their service models.

"Time to innovate"

Only 40% use the City Council website to interact

37% use the telephone

13% prefer physical presence

10% use other methods

Among the respondents, the retired people prefer accessing a Council website as the best platform to interact, whereas the unemployed and the lower income residents prefer to use the telephone.

This was not expected – typically older people, we are told, are resistant to using technology and prefer face to face interaction. It may also indicate concerns for some people, about using digital methods when they have complex needs. The findings suggest a need to design more around the expectations of lower income family’s needs and the unemployed in a shift to digital delivery.

"Time to engage"

The challenge for local government policy makers is to create digital methods which can facilitate meaningful civic participation and which genuinely drive digital adoption. This survey indicates that there is still a long way to go in this, with almost 7 out of 10 respondents feeling excluded or not well-served by existing methods.

However, at the same time, roughly half of all citizens who do use council services or are involved in council activities, prefer to use digital means.

68% do not express an opinion on city-related issues through official channels (website, email, letter). The percentage is higher among women (73%), the less educated (77%) and the unemployed (77%).

Among those who expressed an opinion, 45% preferred to use social media & Council websites, whereas 38% preferred discussions with friends and family and 16% preferred letters and emails to local authorities.

Similar trends are identified in more surveys (see table below).


Activating a digitally-friendly audience? Go mobile!

Empowering a digitally-friendly audience? Go mobile!

Can digital transformation pave the path to improved citizen engagement and an enhanced democratic participation at the local level? Our survey suggests that the answer is a resounding “yes”, but it also demonstrates low satisfaction with some local government services.

The lower level of satisfaction in specific areas point to priorities for digital delivery models, provided these are well-designed and reflect the needs and preferences of the citizen groups who use them. This is particularly true for services used by the low-educated and the least privileged social strata.

On a positive note, there is a growing willingness from all citizen groups to embrace the new age of digital. Age, education, ethnicity and income might limit this, but they do not prohibit digital adoption.

Our survey found that citizens are ready to familiarise themselves with And adopt digital applications (e.g. mobile apps) for services and for interactions, as long as these new applications are inclusive, sufficiently customised, user-friendly and have a relevancy and a positive impact on their lives.

76% would use a mobile app (including polls and short commenting functions) to express opinion on a council-related issue.
57% to generally interact with the council.
72% to report an issue/problem.
57% to pay for bills/services.

BUT: low income and poorly educated citizens are less receptive to digital applications

Therefore, a big window of opportunity exists for policy makers in local councils to embrace digital innovation, with examples set in other European states. This is not only an opportunity in redefining services for citizens to use directly, but also in the internal methods for their management and oversight. This includes providing performance dashboards, effective service design tools and digital governance methods necessary for councils to be as efficient, effective and citizen-focused as possible.