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Connecting to Citizens by Email: Finding the “Engagement Upsell” Opportunity

As part of GovLoop’s most recent guide entitled, “Innovating at the Point of Citizen Engagement: Making Every Moment Count,” I interviewed Scott Burns, CEO and co-Founder of GovDelivery (the #1 provider of technology solutions that make it easy for the public sector to expand digital communication with the public). The guide includes an excerpt of a longer discussion, and that full interview is shared below.


What does it mean to be an engaged citizen? In a recent interview with Scott Burns, CEO and co-Founder of GovDelivery , we gained several insights into this question. GovDelivery manages millions of communication touch points between government and citizens every month and has a unique vantage point on the issue.

Q: What does the term “citizen engagement” mean to you?

Burns: “What’s unique about the public sector is that acquiring “customers” and stakeholders is easy—in some cases it’s automatic. Companies in the private sector work hard to acquire customers, but the government doesn’t have to worry about getting that initial customer – and that’s a huge advantage. Just by showing up in a city or county, and conducting business or living in a place, a person is automatically a customer.

Citizen engagement means different things to different people. Fundamentally, it is about citizens feeling empowered to connect with and influence their government in order to improve their life, their community, and their country. For some, it’s about participating in online or in-person forums. For others, it’s more passive. My wife, for example, engages on her own terms. She’s a parent, a physician, a caring neighbor, and a responsible and valuable member of the community. Like most citizens, she probably wouldn’t go to a town hall meeting unless something directly impacts her. She makes a very American decision to expect the people we elect and those they hire, to do their job of managing our government. If she thinks they are failing or that her involvement will make a positive difference, she’ll get involved; otherwise, she’s going to be an engaged citizen just by going about her life the way she does.

Q: So how do you encourage someone to engage with government in other ways?

Burns: “Showing up for town halls or voting on a website is not for everyone. As soon as you have the mentality that one form or activity is better than another, you start focusing in on a narrower and narrower group of people. The real opportunity is searching for lighter forms of engagement such as eliciting a comment when paying taxes or renewing a fishing license, which is easier than attending a 5-hour focus group. When we reduce barriers by making it easy for government and people to engage when the time is right… a broader range of people will engage.”

Q: Can you give examples of government creating these lighter engagement points?

Burns: “In Minneapolis, the police department has a designated employee who works on community engagement and crime prevention. He’s very focused on a specific opportunity: recruiting block leaders to coordinate neighborhood awareness and reduce crime. He uses technology, but focuses attention and knowledge on specific problems to actually move the needle. He’s been able to use email outreach and Facebook to get more block leaders, and then uses GovDelivery to distribute timely crime alerts and get urgent data out to the block leaders and the general public.”

Q: What topics are most important to citizens based on their digital subscription activity?

Burns: “It’s not that surprising. People’s information needs map very closely to what I imagine are their personal priorities. In all the data passing through our systems, we see topics like health and safety, children and family, money, time, employment, and recreation driving most of the interest in government information. These are a human’s basic hierarchy of needs. Traditional governance issues, such as city council meetings and press releases, are important, but citizens won’t pay attention to those items unless their more basic needs are met or when policy is affecting them directly.”

Q: How do you move them to different levels of engagement?

Burns: “Knowing this hierarchy to be true, we need to find the ‘Engagement Upsell’. Think of when you go into Barnes and Noble – you come in to pick up the latest Harry Potter book for your kid and the store wants to make sure the self-help book is front and center when you enter. This translates to government information as the snow or earthquake alert could be considered ‘the Harry Potter of government engagement’ while engagement around policy is more like ‘the self-help book.’ When a city has an event that drives traffic and awareness, such as a snow emergency, they need to make sure they are ‘upselling’ citizens on other content that aligns with the strategic priorities of the community.

“It’s pretty easy to catch someone and encourage them to sign up for an alert while paying taxes or getting a fishing license. However, many government organizations are not compelled to find this ‘upsell opportunity.’ GovDelivery is showing our clients how to use technology to drive engagement and initiatives in this way, with a strong focus on reaching more people as the heart of that strategy. In fact, we’ve completely shifted our client support to help agencies go even bigger with outreach. Our mission is based on helping government maximize direct connections with the public– and this focus is really the guiding principle to help government to think innovatively around citizen outreach.”

To learn more about the ways in which GovDelivery drives citizen engagement, please visit: http://www.govdelivery.com/how-we-help/

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