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Turning Mobile Phones Into Citizen Engagement Portals

This interview is an excerpt from our recent guide, Top Challenges & Solutions From State and Local Governments, which examines 16 case study examples transforming the way government safeguards information and technology.

Teens and young adults are often accused of being addicted to their phones, but they are not alone: 90 percent of Americans own a mobile device with text messaging capabilities. And more than 60 percent own a smartphone. The average smartphone user checks their phone 110 times a day.

If you want to reach a specific population and reach them fast, text messaging is the easiest and most effective method. And that’s not just for parents trying to keep track of their teens. Governments are also seeing a powerful increase in engagement by going mobile.

GovLoop spoke with Natalie Fedie, GovDelivery’s Vice President of Client Success. GovDelivery is a digital communication platform provider for government.

“Governments are using mobile technology to offer real-time information to people where they are,” explained Fedie. For example, King County Parks in Seattle has a mobile app where hikers can get map access anyplace, anytime and on any device. “That level of access has been a real benefit to the King County Parks.” Taking it to the next level, organizations like Michigan DNR are allowing hunters to text in and request information on their nearest check location, regardless of whether they have internet service or a smartphone. This provides a better level of service to the DNR’s customers, while allowing the DNR to more effectively monitor and control the deer population.

The key to text notification success is to match the message to the medium – a tactic that is especially critical in an emergency. “The Federal Communications Commission recommends keeping phone calls to a minimum during an emergency. A text message is a great way to communicate warnings, but also tell citizens where to go and other life-saving information,” said Fedie.

With text messaging, government communicators have about three seconds to get a citizen’s attention. “We work with customers to make sure they are grabbing attention quickly and able to maintain that attention throughout the mobile lifecycle,” said Fedie.

For example, let’s say a city was trying to get riders to take a different bus route. After the initial alert asking riders to take an alternative bus route, the city would ask for feedback. Text messages would prompt users to answer: Was the new route successful? Was the alert helpful? How did it impact your commute? “Text messaging allows you to keep the end user engaged throughout the process,” said Fedie.

72 percent of adults are less than four feet from their phones at all times, and 97% of text messages are read within 15 minutes of being sent. Text alerts allow governments to engage citizens in a real-time manner wherever they are. “People are not chained to the desks anymore. They are on the move. What text alerts do is eliminate the barrier to citizens receiving information and services from government,” said Fedie.

It’s not just citizens that get a boost for the easy access mobile provides. “The ability to do two-way communications and receive survey information or instant feedback from users has been really helpful. It’s hard to get people to respond to surveys. So having that ability to instantaneously respond to communications has allowed government to get better feedback,” explained Fedie. For example, One Region Forward promoted a text message survey on bus stops and flyers, engaged the public, and instantly received public input on its proposed plan for the Buffalo Niagara region.

However, text alerts are not perfect in every situation. Fedie said she works with clients to learn when and where text alerts will be most effective. “We’ve found text alerts work best when you’re trying to reach a specific audience, like younger people or low income audiences who may not have internet access.”

Additionally, mobile is used most effectively in partnerships with other communication outreach best practices. “Mobile enhances the other digital channels that governments use. Organizations should be using text messaging in combination with their other digital channels, like email and social, to reach as many people as possible.”

Simply put, text messaging enhances citizen engagement. “People’s satisfaction with government goes up if services are easier to access and they see a return on their tax dollar investment,” explained Fedie. “If they have to go into a office, wait in a long line with a lot of government workers behind the desk, there is a very real perception that the government is not using their tax dollars effectively. But if they get a text alert warning them that wait times are long and they should reschedule their visit online, their customer experience is drastically improved. By seeing government be smarter about investing in technology, it’s really a win/win situation for both government and the taxpayer.”

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