Bridging the Divide: Government Efforts to Connect with Citizens

Citizens have grown accustomed to superior levels of service through their private sector interactions requiring access to information and the ability to engage anytime, anywhere. Fortunately, these expectations have not gone unnoticed by the federal government.

Federal managers recognize they are under increased scrutiny from citizens and know that it’s necessary to keep the public informed about the government’s work. According to a recent survey focused on Citizen Engagement with the Federal Government conducted by the Government Business Council (GBC), 90% of government responders agree that government should be transparent to citizens, yet nearly 60% of responders believe that government is not currently transparent and is rather closed in the ability to share information with the public.

Similarly, the survey reveals a gap in government responsiveness to citizens today and how it should be. While 97% of federal executives believe government should be “very” or “somewhat” responsive to citizens, only 45% view government as responsive today.

The importance of sharing information and informing citizens of their agency’s work is not lost on federal executives. A total of 90% believe it is “very” or “somewhat necessary” to inform citizens of their agency’s work. Yet, managers award only average grades to their agency efforts to make information available online.

Despite efforts to enhance transparency and connect with citizens, the survey indicates 60% of federal executives recognize that citizens are “frustrated” with government’s ability to engage and service the public.

So the question becomes, what is holding government back?

Government knows the significance of informing and interacting with citizens, yet according to the recent survey it has not fully accomplished the ability to do so. Even with mandates such as Open Government, progress towards increasing transparency and delivery of information is debatable.

Government is accused of operating in silos and there have been significant modernization efforts across government to break down information and operational silos, to bridge the communication gap within organizations and amongst citizens, yet inconsistencies in government’s ability to provide a seamless experience across every available communication channel (web, social, mobile, phone, chat) suggest that communication silos still exist. For instance, the survey exposed only marginal performance rankings for government’s ability to interact effectively with citizens by phone, a channel we have been leveraging since 1876, the year Alexander Graham Bell brought the world the very first telephone device. Yet, we still have not figured out how to leverage the channel effectively to communicate information.

Finally, a desire to control the information released is the most cited roadblock to greater sharing of information or interaction with citizens, according to 59% of federal executives.

The good news is that 60% of federal executives do expect citizen interaction in agency work to increase in the future.

So what should government do? 5 Ways To Empower Government to Power Citizens

As agencies continue to receive average grades when it comes to sharing agency data and interacting with citizens, what can they do to better inform and interact with the general public?

Step 1: Step Up and Take Responsibility

An increased shared responsibility across agencies and government employees toward a citizen centric world where citizen engagement and improving the accessibility of information become critical to every single government employee will help agencies carry out their missions. A team is only as strong as its weakest link. Regardless of how far removed a government employee may be, or perceives himself to be, from direct interaction and engagement with citizens, if he does not value his role as essential to providing good service and carrying out the organization’s very mission of helping the public, there is a ripple effect that will eventually reach the citizen and translate to a negative experience.

Step 2: Help Citizens Help Themselves

Make it easy on yourself, give citizens the power they want by providing the self-service tools that provide access to timely, accurate information. When citizens reach out to your organization, they want immediate and easy access to accurate, relevant information. The principles behind self-service are simple—provide the information citizens want at their fingertips regardless of whether they use the web or phone to engage with you.

Step 3: Offer Multi-Channel & Cross Channel Choice and Design Seamless Experiences Across those Channels

Internet access, mobile devices, social media, and chat, have become almost ubiquitous. Organizations that embrace these channels can provide world-class citizen service. To achieve success, organizations need to create citizen service interfaces that are easy to use, responsive to issues and problems, and provide a unified, consistent experience across all channels.

Step 4: Engage Proactively and Listen
Agencies cannot meet or exceed citizen expectations if they don’t know what those expectations are. It’s critical to proactively seek out and understand the citizen voice, and to let the citizen know you acted on it. Give them a voice, which is what they want—they want to be heard.

Step 5: Measure and Improve Continuously

Measure the channels you use to inform and interact with citizens and evaluate the information you are providing regularly to ensure you are deploying resources appropriately and that the great work you are doing is being leveraged appropriately.

Treat people how you want to be treated

As citizens, by reflecting on our own personal experiences we can appreciate the desire to be heard and be provided with immediate confirmation that our inquiries are being addressed, gain quick and accurate access to information, and receive consistency in the delivery of services from organizations in our preferred channels.

According to the survey, government executives recognize there is a gap between agencies and citizens to fulfilling citizen expectations. Technology advancements, real world best practices and successes reveal the opportunity for government organizations to become more transparent, improve responsiveness and enhance interactions to maximize citizen engagement and service.

To hear more about the Citizen Engagement with the Federal Government Survey conducted by the Government Business Council, participate in the webcast GBC is hosting on March 22nd at 2:00 p.m. (ET) to receive the survey details and hear a real world best practice from the Social Security Administration on improving citizen service and engagement. To register to attend the webcast, click here.

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Mark Forman

This is a terrific post. To understand what is possible here, one has to only go back to understanding our college or graduate school texts on the principal-agent model of our form of democracy. I think what is happening is that too many citizen needs and policy issues cut across long-standing government organization silos (in fact this is the case with every major crisis today; be it unfortunate situations like in Japan or Katrina, or new foreign political economic issues like the raging forces of democracy in the middle east that now affect our foreign policy, global economic, and defense agencies). Today’s problems require engagement with problem solvers, including the best possible exchange of data and ideas. As the Open Source movement proved over the past 15 years, we will get better solutions by breaking down barriers and engaging those who understand and can solve parts of the problem. I know this is threatening to many government branch and division cheifs who worked their way up the career ladder based on their expertise. We need more research and work on how to make a viable career path for those within government, while opening-up problem solving to those outside the organization.


A total of 90% believe it is “very” or “somewhat necessary” to inform citizens of their agency’s work.

I think government better take a proactive role advocating for itself and the value provided directly or indirectly to citizens, or risk being collateral damage in the recent surge to eradicate publicly funded services & programs. Yes, it is absolutely necessary for the public to understand the necessity, value, and results provided by government to value funding them. It isn’t sufficient to think it will speak for itself. Gone are the days where it was better – and possible – for a cluster of bureaucrats to operate in relative anonymity for decades, pushing paper around to some nebulous end. My statement is underpinned by the programs and services actually being value-add and able to prove it, which is another conversation completely.

Carol Davison

A part of the problem is that when we are up to our elbows in alligators we forget that our initial objective was to drain the swampl We are so busy performing what it took to get us here, that we don’t realize that needs have change. Additionally sometimes there is a conflict between what leadership wants and what the customer wants. Shouldn’t the customers’ need prevail? I thought it was my job to serve the customer, and leaderships’ job to empower me to do so.

David Kuehn

At the state and federal level many agencies and programs have legitimate discussions about whom they serve, which is a necessary and prerequisite element of providing transparency and access. There are numerous examples of government expending considerable resources to engage people with little or no lasting impact. Yes, engagement requires actions and follow through, but it also requires substance and value for the parties involved.

Wendi Pomerance Brick

I enjoyed reading the results of this study and found it interesting that public sector and private sector results trend the same way. When assessing private business CEOs about their thoughts on the level of service provided by their companies, 80% of CEOs think their companies provide outstanding service. That means that 8 out of 10 times you interact with a business you receive such great service that you feel compelled to tell someone about it. Well, we all know that isn’t true. There is a gap between what we want to achieve and what we are achieving.

A confounding truth is that we all are proud of our own organizations it clouds our view of what the actual customer may be experiencing. Great customer service is judged by the recipient, not the provider. So is transparency. Therein lays the discrepancy. I can think I’m doing an amazing job, but if you don’t, then I’m not. Perception is everything.

One of the best ways to combat this phenomenon is to asses the levels of service, and more specifically transparency, objectively. Establish the definitions and standards you expect people to meet in every situation, train them to the standards, and then conduct assessments to see how close you are to the mark. Great ways to measure are customer satisfaction surveys, employee satisfaction surveys (employees are customers too), mystery shopping activities and focus groups.

The five ways noted in the article above are a terrific ways to ensuring you are providing high quality service and greater transparency during each of your interactions. I would however take the last statement one step further. Instead of “treating people the way you want to be treated”, treat people the way THEY want to be treated. Everyone is a snowflake – meaning that everyone is a unique individual with different interpretations and expectations. Some expectations are universal (like providing the right answer the first time), but some are quite subtle. Focus on providing great service to every person every day and you will be more likely to hit the mark.