Does “Communications” Include “Citizen Engagement” and “Customer Service”?

Home Forums Citizen Engagement & Customer Service Does “Communications” Include “Citizen Engagement” and “Customer Service”?

This topic contains 16 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Ori Hoffer 8 years, 3 months ago.

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  • #148426

    As GovLoop is gearing up for 2012, we’re creating sub-communities that will consolidate the content and conversations around the main topics in government: acquisition, career, communications, human resources, leadership/management/supervision, technology, and project/program management.

    One of the discussions that has arisen is the use of the word “Communications” to encompass “Citizen Engagement” and “Customer Service.” There is a shift happening right now in communications to think in a more differentiated way about “push” messaging and information delivery. Traditional thinking in communications has been around advertising marketing, public announcements, press releases, emails, etc.

    With social media and other new technology, there are (a) more channels to communicate in a way that “pushes” content (i.e. apps, texting, mobile sites, video sharing, podcasts, etc.) and, (b) more ways to get citizens involved in the process of information sharing (i.e. crowdsourcing, social networks, etc.).

    So that brings up a few questions for you:

    1. Does the word “communications” encompass “citizen engagement” and “customer service” or are they separate functions?

    2. Are there different people in these organizations who perform these functions such that if we used “communications,” we’d miss people involved in “citizen engagement” or “customer service” – or vice versa? If we said “citizen engagement”, would that be meaningful and capture the attention of “communications” people?

    Thanks for your feedback…

  • #148458

    Ori Hoffer

    The line is becoming more blurred as anyone who is “communicating” for their agency/business should keep customer service and engagement principles in mind – “how will this information help our customers?” “Are customers more likely to see this information if we post it on Facebook/Twitter as well as our website?” “Can we improve our messaging if we get citizen feedback?”

    That said, certain tasks that often fall to communications departments these days – like responding to Facebook comments, Twitter questions and such might be better handled by dedicated “customer service” teams as opposed to the folks writing press releases.

    The key will be to get customer service and communications teams to work together to develop a strategy and systems so that both groups don’t step on each others toes. So perhaps it should stay in one forum, but make sure to invite representatives from both sides to participate.

  • #148456

    Deni La Rue

    I think using ‘citizen engagement’ is good idea. ‘Communications’ in our organization also refers to technical projects such as radio towers and telephone systems. Communications also refers to what I do as a PIO. ‘Customer Service’ on the other hand is often associated with Human Resources and internal employees who engage with the public over specific services.

  • #148454

    Bob Logan

    1. Separate.

    2. Done by different people.

    In my experience in both government and non-government organizations, “citizen engagement” and “corporate” (top-management-level) communications were handled by the official Communications department, while customer service, although it requires constant, careful, (and hopefully skillful) communication, was done by “operations” staff. The official communications department would handle press releases related to new products or programs, but that was as close as they came to customers, unless they were covering an “event” where actual customers were being engaged, which would have been organized by operations staff (even if having the event was the idea of the Communications department).

  • #148452

    1. If you cast a net broad enough, communications can encompass almost everything. Communications is one “tool” used by those engaging citizens or serving customers.

    2(a). Yes, particularly the first part.

    2(b). Citizen Engagement is a meaningful (and precise) term that would capture the attention of those engaging with citizens!! Why would one want it to capture the attention of all “communications” people? (See #1 above.)

  • #148450

    Candi Harrison

    Great customer service is the goal – the objective. Serving our customers is why we exist. Communications and engagement are two ways we do that. They are processes…the means to the end.

    If we don’t communicate effectively, we can’t serve. Period. So communicating is a “must have” if you want to provide great customer service. But it’s not the only thing involved in great customer service. You have to provide services customers want. You have to make those services easy to use. You have to make those services easy to find (communications comes in here). You have to provide that back-end service that helps customers who get stuck. And you have to evaluate and improve, constantly. Communications is a big part of customer service – but not the whole enchilada.

    Probably the most important part of communicating is listening. Listen to what your customers want, how they want it, when they want it, where they want it. Listen to the words they use so you can communicate using their vernacular. You can do that lots of ways without actually engaging them – go to events/places where they are (yes, I mean get out of your office and go where citizens are!), through email, through social media, through reading (letters to the editor, Pew studies, anything you can find that tells you what people are thinking, asking, discussing), statistics about what publications customers are ordering or asking your correspondence units or your call centers or seeing where they go on your website. Believe it or not, you can listen without engaging. Eavsdropping is effective and really important.

    Then there’s actually interacting with your customers – engaging. It’s two-way. Asking for their ideas and discussing it with them. Inviting them to participate in conversations. Involving them in problem-solving. Back and forth. When I think about “citizen engagement” as it’s being used in the federal govt today, this is what I think about. This is the best kind of listening.

    I think it’s really important to separate – and understand – the objective and the processes we use to reach the objective. Communication for the sake of communication is what gets us in trouble (that’s when we get self-centered). Communicating to improve customer service puts the customer first. To me, we always have to put the customer first.

    For what it’s worth…

  • #148448

    Bill Brantley

    I would argue for two separate groups because I think there is a major difference in customer service and citizen engagement. With customer service, the government is providing information and there is minimal interaction with the citizen. Think of providing a weather report, economic statistics, or pay tables. The focus here is providing information that is accessible and best answers the questions that government receives on a continuing basis.

    In contrast, citizen engagement suggests more interaction and a process where the government and the citizens co-create the answer. A different set of competencies and behaviors are required in the engagement process and therefore, a separate group is needed to refine that process.

    One can argue for a continuum with customer service at one pole and citizen engagement at the other pole but I think it would be helpful to have two groups tackle this vital communication issue.

  • #148446

    Nina A. Hall

    Customer service should be an extension of customer engagement. In my county, we’ve created an Office of Neighborhood Empowerment to create citizen engagement. Most engagement revolves around improving services and processes, so concerns could be centralized in a customer service function within a “citizens engagement” department. The communications department could be a key link to citizen engagement and customer service because they would drive key messages, as well could frame responses to topics such as, why a tax increase.

  • #148444

    Faye Newsham

    Agencies/Departments I’ve worked with previously would vehemently argue that “public engagement” rather than “citizen engagement” would be the way to go (if they would take up a name change in the first place) as the presumption that the customers are “citizens” of the U.S. is offensive to some. In any case, the moniker “communications” has too many connotations and the “engagement” meme seems to be a good direction to head. The failure of a “communications” group to do just that is too pervasive. Changing focus may create some newer, more successful practices at the very least.

  • #148442

    Susan Grow


    Clearly, I am late joining this conversation and there are a lot of excellent perspectives that have been shared but here is my two cents:

    From a practical, functional perspective, communications is a need that exists and must be performed well in order to have effective citizen engagement and/or customer service. However, from an organizational perspective, it appears to me that it will take some more time before organizations, whether in government or in the private sector, will have evolved to full integration of the three.

    In relatively recent years, there has been conversation around “the customer experience” or sometimes “the total customer experience”, which is used as a broad term to encompass everything that influences a customers’ perception of the organization from the time s/he first “notices” the organization (which can be from any source, including social media) following through the entire customer “relationship” with an organization, or the organization is no longer on the individual’s “radar screen”.

    IMHO, until organizations have a czar of the customer experience – maybe something like CCEO (Chief Customer Experience Officer) – there will not be an organizationally consolidated or centralized place to go to be sure you reach all the “interested” (or potentially interested , or those who should be interested) portions of the organization who care about communications, customer engagement and/or customer service. From a practical, functional perspective, organizations will likely to continue feel the need to have functional areas such as Public Affairs/Communications, Customer Service (or Servicing) and a centralized point for all customer (as well as non-customer) “conversations”/engagement to be managed.

    In government, as I am sure we all realize, the challenge is particularly steep since there are so many “towers of excellence” aka silos!

    While it may be tempting to try to create a one-size-fits-all name that encompasses the communications, citizen engagement and customer service interests, the issue is that you will capture the interest of a few of the more enlightened folks who do see these three as integrated, but there are still a great deal of traditional folks who are doing good things and working hard to foster great communications, customer service and citizen engagement but who are either stymied by how their organization is structured or by those above them in the organization who don’t “get it”.

    I am not suggesting “customer experience” or “total customer experience” as the “new” phrase to encapsulate the areas of communications, customer service and customer engagement – organizationally, government is not there yet (and this seems to be true in much of the private sector as well) – but perhaps there is a bridge phrase that will help keep the idea moving forward, bringing along those who haven’t embraced the whole perspective yet while still enabling/encouraging or supporting those get that the three are unequivocably intertwined. Perhaps an approach would be to use a key term as the name with a tag line that engenders the total customer experience concept. I am certainly NOT a creative type but I toss out this as a way to get others to offer better ideas – especially shorter names/tag lines:

    Customer Experience Management

    Engaging, informing & servicing customers

    I am looking forward to seeing how this conversation evolves!

  • #148440

    Dave Hebert

    Just an organizational answer here, but at the USGS, we have an External and Citizen Engagement Officer in our Comm. office who is responsible for these very things.

  • #148438

    Thanks, Dave. That’s very helpful. So “Comm” is still the overarching unit and this person has a citizen engagement role within. My hunch is that this the structure that prevails in most organizations.

    From the comments above, customer service then stands as a separate function altogether, mostly tied to call centers or public-facing reception roles…

  • #148436

    Jack Shaw

    I’ve been a customer service manager and community relations manager. True, they are different functions, but when you have good relations with the community (citizen engagement), it helps customer service. Customer service can be done at the operational level, where the same people can make something happen. I don’t think it wrong to have “citizen engagement” or community relations at that level, too. It wouldn’t hurt to invite several “levels” to the same community function as long as we are still one family. When I was doing customer service, it was at a level where I had to contact someone at the operational level of a state government and ask for them to look into the situation. I was not the boss of them so we had to have understandings as government entities. When a state had a great outreach effort, my organization supported it 100 percent. As a community relations manager it was my job to encourage good working relationships so that misunderstandings often handled by customer service didn’t occur, but I still see them so closely related. In my last job, I did both and would encourage other organizations to work together for the same effort. If you know the problems, you go out into the community armed with answers and if you don’t you have to come back to those who do have the answers–the same people.

  • #148434

    David Dejewski

    These functions have been seperate for all the reasons and in the ways folks have already stated.

    Perhaps the question should be: are these things seperate – or is there an expectation that they should be seperate – in the minds of the people an organization is trying to reach?

    I believe people looking in on an organization expect some continuity.

    Don’t take my comment to mean I think continuity should be limited to a “top down” or central focus. The contemporary paradigm includes 2.0.

  • #148432

    Susan Grow

    Dave – maybe the question is: Have we (those of us inside organizations) separated the functions in order to manage them despite the fact that our customers view the functions as all a part of their total experience with the organization? It isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing that the functions have been separated in order to manage them, however, I think we need to be conscious of this and realize that the our customers see the whole, even though we break it down functionally.

    Which gets us back to the reason may have been asking the question….what do we name or call the group(s) that need to be included in the customer experience conversations?

  • #148430

    David Dejewski

    Separation for management purposes can be done. In some cases, it may even be the best way to go.

    Whenever we think “separation,” we should also think “coordinating mechanisms.”

    My point is: a proper focus starts and ends with the perspective of the people we’re trying to reach. Asking questions from their perspective (perhaps even asking them directly), will lead to uncovering whatever organizationally unique structures you have that need to be involved.

  • #148428

    Well I may have missed the point here–ALWAYS a distinct possibility–but it seems to me that this exchange started out with a question concerning the distinction (if any) between “communications” and { citizen engagement / customer service }. However it seems to have evolved into one regarding the distinction between those latter two terms. (An interesting communications “process” in and of itself!)

    Postulating my understanding of the original question (!), my assessment of the discussion is that most participants seem to feel that {citizen engagement / customer service }–as a function–is not the same as the much broader concept of communications.

    To the extent the more recent question regarding the difference between citizen engagement and customer service is not a semantical one, I suspect the answer lies most on whether the person receiving the engagement / service sees themselves at the particular time (or role) as a “citizen” or “customer” ….. That is, as D.D. writes, “the perspective of the people we are trying to reach.”


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